Omnibus uses workaround to keep ONC funding steady

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The Health and Human Services Department's health information technology arm will be funded at the same level this fiscal year despite a cut to its actual budget authority under a bill approved by the House and the Senate.

The bill, known as an omnibus because it consolidates a majority of individual spending bills, secured Senate passage Dec. 17 in a 67-32 vote a day after the House approved it 296-121. President Obama is expected to sign the bill into law.

Under the omnibus, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology would be funded $61.3 million for fiscal 2012, the same amount it enacted in fiscal 2011 but less than the President's request of $78.4 million.

ONC will nonetheless take a funding hit in fiscal 2012 because it won't receive Recovery Act funds as it did in 2010 and 2011. Over the two years ONC had a total of $2 billion available to it through ARRA funds.

The actual amount provided to ONC in direct budget authority, is also a sharp cut. The omnibus specifies the division of the $61.3 million in appropriated funds: $16.4 million is to be provided in budget authority and $44.8 million is to be made available through the Public Health Service program evaluation set aside, established by Section 241 of the Public Health Service Act.

In contrast, in fiscal 2011 ONC received $42.4 million in direct budget authority and $19 million came from PHS "evaluation tap funding." The request from the White House was also for more funds for budget authority, $57 million, and less funds dependent on set-aside funding, $21.4 million.

According to ONC spokesperson Parmeeth Atwal, the set aside has the effect of redistributing up to 3.2 percent of appropriated funds from four HHS agencies which act as donors to other HHS recipient agencies and programs. Set-aside funds are counted toward the overall program funding level.

In September 2011, ONC released its 5-year plan for health IT. The five goals ONC must achieve in order to transform healthcare over the next 5 years are information exchange through meaningful use, improved cost and care, confidence in health IT, enablement of better health outcomes and advancement in health learning.

ONC will closely track progress in meeting strategic goals, "particularly the high-priority goal for providers to adopt and become meaningful users of certified EHR technology," explained ONC Office of Policy and Planning Director Jodi Daniel in an HHS blog post at the time the plan was published.

 For more:
- download the HHS portion of the omnibus (.pdf)
- download its accompanying report (.pdf)

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