Inside Northrop Grumman's health IT strategy

Amy King, the mathematician who makes it add up

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is part one of a two-part story Northrop Grumman's Amy King, who leads the company's health IT programs.

The trajectories of Amy King’s work in health IT and Northrop Grumman Corp.’s health IT work intersected in 2006, when King was named vice president of health IT programs in the company’s Information Systems sector, civil systems division.

Viewed in retrospect, it seems as predictable as the path of Halley’s comet. Northrop Grumman has developed and supported the Medicare Beneficiary Database Suite of Systems since the project’s inception in 1998; in 2005 it was one of four companies that the Health and Human Services Department tasked with designing a prototype Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN).

Before coming to Northrop Grumman, King was vice president for federal health care at CGI Federal, a company she’d been with for 10 years. She came to CGI from the public sector, where she had put to good use her double bachelor’s degrees — in applied mathematics and administrative and management science — from Carnegie Mellon University, and her MBA from George Washington University as an analyst/programmer developing systems as a contractor for the Defense Department.

The combination of her long experience in the relatively new field of health IT and her leadership position at Northrop Grumman give King a unique view of a fast-developing area of technology. Washington Technology contributing editor Sami Lais recently spoke with King about the past, present and future of health IT and the federal government.

WASHINGTON TECHNOLOGY: Health IT is such a hot topic these days, a lot of mergers and acquisition activity, the federal government is driving so many changes: health IT standards-setting and definitions, the Health IT for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act and some contract awards, but spending levels don’t seem to quite reflect all the activity. What’s going on?

AMY KING: Quite a few variables are converging: You see budgets shrinking, you have a new administration, and you’re seeing more interest in synergies between federal and state agencies. You’re also seeing opportunities for reusability of solutions — something that was developed for the Defense Department might be reused in civilian agencies. In health IT, the Health and Human Services Department would be an example. Agencies are using solutions that have maybe 70 percent applicability to them and building from there, rather than just starting from scratch. 

So you have tighter budgets and quicker time frames, and then you add the HITECH Act, [enacted as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009], which really started things going, electronic health records and then the mother of all implementations of health care reform.

WT: You’ve made the point before that this isn’t all coming out of nowhere.

KING: Right. You could say we started back in 2004, 2005, with the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit. But health reform legislation today is so much broader and more encompassing; it’s probably more than 10 times as big as the prescription drug implementation. It covers so much more and you have so many more things in play. For example, the states have to set up health insurance exchanges and expand their Medicaid eligibility enrollment. The IRS has to be involved, tracking who has health insurance and tax breaks for small businesses.

WT: I confess, when I thought “health IT,” Northrop Grumman didn’t come immediately to mind. But you’ve been, and continue to be, centrally involved in shaping the technology.

KING: Well, we put together a health organization, really focusing on health, in 2003, so we have a bit of a head start. We recognized back then the importance that health [IT] could have in a few years. And those early planning and preparation efforts are coming to fruition with health care reform and all the other things that are going on.

WT: In 2005, Northrop Grumman won one of the four HHS awards to prototype the [NHIN] for health care providers to securely share information. Do you recognize your work in the current version?

KING: I’d say bits and pieces of all four solutions are going into NHIN; I think [HHS’s Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT] was looking at taking the best of breed across the four prototypes. 

Certainly, it showed that interoperability can work, and it’s been beneficial in making the progress that has been made. But you have to realize that’s just one element in a complex and constantly growing and evolving [health IT landscape]. 

For example, we’ve also been involved in military health, with the Veterans Affairs Department, and we’re working in some of the states and with commercial entities to extend that interoperability. So if you’re in a commercial hospital and you need to get that information into your military health records, that is feasible and the information exchange occurs. 

We’re very excited and proud that we were in at the beginning and are part of where things are heading.

WT: You’ve done some interesting, innovative things in health IT; I’m thinking of how you get universities involved in your practice.

KING: New ideas often start in universities, so we’re looking at how we can leverage that in creating some better solutions.
We’ve partnered with universities for some of the work we’re doing for the National Institutes of Health’s Bioinformatics Resource Center.
But we’re also looking at leveraging the resources of the whole Northrop Grumman organization. We have a cyber consortium at universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University. We’re coupling their capabilities in research with our background, knowledge — health being one of our sweet spots — and experience to develop some innovative offerings for our customers. 

We also have a public alliance program for public health where we’re working with universities: Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University; Satcher Health Leadership Institute at The Morehouse School of Medicine; Georgia State University; Georgia Institute of Technology; and the Colorado School of Public Health, and the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] to come up with some innovations.

WT: Forgive me for bringing up ancient history here, but this sounds like a lessons-learned effort from the 1990s when Northrop Grumman was growing in new areas, largely through mergers and acquisitions, while its huge B-2 bomber work was winding down. The attempt to transfer the best and brightest of the 11,500 redundant B-2 employees to the new sectors was a case of too little, too late, to put it mildly. Northrop Grumman subsequently developed a program to remain decentralized but centrally capture knowledge companywide and inculcate in new employees a sense of the company culture became an industry model.

KING: Yes, One Northrop Grumman. That was something that was really stressed in taking TRW Inc. and all the other acquisitions into Northrop Grumman and really building an information systems powerhouse.

WT: Well, I look at some of what you’re doing, reaching into the universities, working with them, giving students practical experience on projects, as extending — repurposing, if you will — that One Northrop Grumman program to capture hearts and minds, so when these students graduate, they’ll be predisposed to come to Northrop Grumman. Am I crazy, or am I right here?

KING: [Laughs] Absolutely. We’re also looking at doing something similar with George Mason University and some other universities. Look at where your future leaders and future technologists are going to come from — they’re going to come from the universities. So we’re looking at how we can [connect] the best and brightest with One Northrop Grumman and come up with a couple [of] game-changers. 

NEXT: When is civil IT not just ones and zeros skillfully arranged but a matter of life and death? For the answer, see Part 2 of Washington Technology’s conversation with Northrop Grumman health IT mastermind Amy King.

About the Author

Sami Lais is a special contributor to Washington Technology.

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