Washington In Crisis: ONC Announces That It Will Not Tweet Or Respond to Tweets During Shutdown

The U.S. government shutdown continues to claim victims.

The latest is HealthIT.gov, the website designed to help doctors and hospitals make the transition to electronic and make better use of health information technology – a key component of Obamacare’s drive to transform healthcare.

The Health Information Technology Office of the National Coordinator posted a brief announcement on the site informing visitors to HealthIT.gov that “information … may not be up to date, transactions submitted via the website may not be processed and the agency may not be able to respond to inquiries until appropriations have been enacted.”

Officials also sent a tweet saying that the ONC regrets to inform us that while the shutdown continues it will “not tweet or respond to tweets.”

This struck THCBist as slightly odd.

After all, if you’re looking for an inexpensive way to communicate with the public in a pinch, Twitter seems like the perfect choice.  We get that government websites are ridiculously expensive things to run. Blogs are considerably cheaper.  Operating a Twitter account — on the other hand — is almost free.  Our brains were flooded with scenarios.  How much could the ONC possibly be spending on Twitter? And for that matter, didn’t the Department of Defense originally invent the Internet to allow for  emergency communication during times of national crisis? Doesn’t a fiscal insurrection by cranky Republicans qualify?

Fallout for the National Health IT Program

While federal officials have issued repeated assurances that the shutdown will not impact the Obamacare rollout, it does look as though there will be a fairly serious impact on the administration’s health IT program.  If HHS sticks to script, only 4 of 184 ONC employees will remain on duty during the shutdown. That makes it sound like activities are going to have to be scaled back just a bit.

If you’re counting on getting an incentive payment from the government for participation in the electronic medical records program, you may be in trouble — at least until the stalemate is settled.  Although ONC has not yet made an official statement,  presumably because the aforementioned Twitter channel has been disabled, leaving the agency unable to speak to or otherwise communicate with the public, going by the available information in the thirteen-page contingency plan drafted by strategists at HHS, it is unclear where the money will come from.

This could be bad news for electronic medical records vendors counting on the incentive program to drive sales as the Obamacare rollout gets officially underway.

Privacy Regulations and Oversight Impacted

Meanwhile, the HHS contingency plan also calls for the temporary closure of the  Office of Civil Rights (OCR), the agency organ responsible for the enforcement of  HIPAA, better known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the federal regulation governing consumer privacy.  This strikes THCBist as  possibly not  a very good idea during the grand opening of the nation’s online health insurance system. Although it is only fair to note that this function may have been handed off to another agency, given the chaos in Washington we have no way of knowing.

Data Duty

Privacy concerns around the government’s stockpile of patient data are another matter, the HHS contingency plan calls for a large team of 400 IT professionals to monitor the security of HHS data.

6 replies »

  1. Of all the methods of communication, I feel least affected by a Twitter shutdown. So much information was passed on before the world of twitter! I feel like blogs, email and website shut downs are much, much worse.

  2. Not to be pedantic, but the DoD developed the Internet to allow research centers to share data sets. If you saw the original bank of phones that comprised arpanet, emergency communication would not be what comes to mind.”