WASHINGTON, D.C. — Data-minded health startups rejoiced Tuesday over new and unprecedented access to the nation’s largest repository of health data: the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services digital archive.
Acting CMS Administrator Andy Slavitt made the announcement in Washington, D.C., at Health Datapalooza, the Department of Health and Human Services annual data conference. In his remarks, Slavitt said the purpose of the policy shift, to start Sept. 1, was to inspire entrepreneurs and forward-thinking companies to create new apps and tech for better health and decision-making. Suggested possibilities included platforms for care management, analytic analysis and predictive modeling.
To accelerate health data consumption even further, innovators and private-sector researchers, he said, are now allowed to request updated data on a quarterly basis rather than annually.
“Up until now, CMS data had only been available to researchers,” Slavitt said. “We’re aiming at directly shaking up health-care innovation and setting a new standard for data transparency.”
Though enthusiastic about the potential private-sector innovations, Slavitt was equally adamant about patient privacy restrictions, saying the data sets — which would include health-care claims data — would not reveal identifiable information such as names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, etc.
Companies wishing to peruse the archives would likewise be held to certain standards. The new searches must be done within the CMS’ secure Virtual Research Data Center. Only aggregated reports — as opposed to patient-level data — can be downloaded. And as a further caveat, attempts to use the data for targeted marketing purposes would be strictly prohibited.
Despite these necessary restrictions, Slavitt said the data push was something to be celebrated and a milestone that's been years in the making.
He credited the organization’s adherence to data — and open data innovation — as a driving force to statistical gains in national health-care quality and cost-effectiveness.
According to Slavitt, incidents of patient harm in hospitals has dropped nationally by 17 percent in the last year, and health-care cost growth is at its lowest rate in 50 years — growing even slower than per capita GDP for the last four. On the policy side, he added that CMS hospitals have saved an estimated $3.2 billion per year by simplifying regulations and cutting redundant requirements. All accomplished with data as a mainstay.
“As a nation we’re beginning to move past the question of what to do and onto the punch list to get it done,” Slavitt said.
His announcement also was coupled with a word of warning to health-care vendors and other stakeholders who might halt the flow of data, private or open, for financial reasons — as in the case to collect hidden fees or to keep customers.
“Data blocking will not be tolerated,” Slavitt said, adding that a new email address has been created so incidents of health data obstruction can be reported to the CMS and investigations can be carried out. He did not state what the specific remedies or repercussions would be — whether they’d come through policy changes or other forms of regulation. However, Slavitt did say “steps” to reform issues would be undertaken and CMS would do it directly.
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.