HHS

Susan DentzerFor the second year running, more women than men have signed up for coverage in health insurance marketplaces during open enrollment under the Affordable Care Act. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, enrollment ran 56 percent female, 44 percent male, during last year’s open enrollment season; preliminary data from this year shows enrollment at 55 percent female, 45 percent male – a 10 percentage point difference.

What gives? An HHS spokeswoman says the department can’t explain most of the differential. Females make up about 51 percent of the U.S. population, but there is no real evidence that, prior to ACA implementation, they were disproportionately more likely to be uninsured than men – and in fact, some evidence indicates that they were less likely to be uninsured than males .

What is clear that many women were highly motivated to obtain coverage under the health reform law – most likely because they want it, and need it.

It’s widely accepted that women tend to be highly concerned about health and health care; they use more of it than men, in part due to reproductive services, and make 80 percent of health care decisions for their families . The early evidence also suggests that women who obtained coverage during open enrollment season last year actively used it.   Continue reading “What Do Women Know About Obamacare That Men Don’t?”

Farzad MostashariEarlier today, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell announced that HHS is doubling down on the historic shift taking place across the health care industry towards value-based care, and is setting a target of having 50 percent of Medicare payments under value-based care arrangements by 2018.

 This would mean that in less than three years, around a quarter of a trillion dollars of health care spending would be made to providers who are being compensated not for ordering more tests and more procedures, but for delivering better outcomes – keeping patients healthier, keeping them out of the hospital, and keeping their chronic conditions in check.

This shift will address a central problem of the US health care system, one that lawmakers and policy experts on all sides of the issue agree is a key contributor to runaway medical inflation.

The logic is straightforward: by simply paying for the volume of services delivered, every provider has a strong incentive to do more — more tests, more procedures, more surgeries. And under this system, there is no financial incentive to maintain a comprehensive overview of patient care – to succeed by keeping the patient healthy, and health care costs down.

In making this announcement, Secretary Burwell took a step that many within HHS had been advocating quietly for years, and which many outside it have advocated more loudly.

Skeptics may ask: what does this accomplish? And why announce it now, when health care costs are already rising at the slowest rate in decades?

Continue reading “A Courageous First Step”

This was a comment I submitted submitted to this proposed set of regulations on health plans participating in the ACA. (Use ctrl-F to search “provider directory” within the page). HHS is proposing forcing insurers to make their provider directories more accurate and machine readable, and it would be great for consumers if that was made the case–especially if APIs (which means basically giving access for other computers to read them) were mandated–here’s why:

Subject–Immediately updated  provider directories machine readable via APIs should be mandated for health insurers.

Finding accurate information about providers is one of the hardest things for consumers to do while interacting with the health care system. While regulation cannot fix all of these issues, these proposed regulations in section  156.230 can greatly help, But they should be strengthened by requiring (under subsection 2) that health insurers immediately add new information about providers in their networks to a publicly available machine readable database accessible via a freely available API.

Currently companies trying to aid consumers in provider search and selection tell us that the information pertaining to which providers are in a particular network is the least accurate of all data they can receive. For consumers the biggest question for plan selection is trying to find out which provider is in their plan, and at the least this requires searching multiple websites. Worse, particular insurer’s plans can even have the same name but can have different networks (in one instance in our personal experience Aetna in New York state had two different plans with effectively the same name but different networks). This is essentially impenetrable for consumers and that is assuming that the information on the websites is accurate or timely–which it is often not.

Continue reading “Let’s Have APIs for Those Provider Directories!”

Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 7.01.42 AMHealth primarily happens outside the doctor’s office—playing out in the arenas where we live, learn, work and play. In fact, a minority of our overall health is the result of the health care we receive.  If we’re to have an accurate picture of health, we need more than what is currently captured in the electronic health record.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) asked the distinguished JASON group to bring its considerable analytical power to bear on this problem: how to create a health information system that focuses on the health of individuals, not just the care they receive. JASON is an independent group of scientists and academics that has been advising the Federal government on matters of science and technology for over 50 years.

Why is it important to pursue this ambitious goal? There has been an explosion of data that could help with all kinds of decisions about health. Right now, though, we do not have the capability to capture and share that data with those who make decisions that impact health—including individuals, health care providers and communities.

The new report, called Data for Individual Health, builds upon the 2013 JASON report, A Robust Health Data Infrastructure.  It lays out recommendations for an infrastructure that could not only achieve interoperability among electronic health records (EHRs), but could also integrate data from all walks of life—including data from personal health devices, patient collaborative networks, social media, environmental and demographic data and genomic and other “omics” data.

Continue reading “Health Data Outside the Doctor’s Office”

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 7.44.07 AMThe question isn’t whether or not we will have another disaster – it is just a matter of when, where and how severe it will be.  The recent earthquake in Northern California, centered near Napa, serves as a reminder that we must be prepared for the unexpected no matter where we live.

Northern California’s largest quake since 1989 happened in a large state where ONC has been working for the past year to ensure health data access every day and especially during disasters. In fact, in April of this year, we issued an assessment on available opportunities to address potential disasters in California and along the Gulf Coast.

Based on those assessments and our expectations of a catastrophic event in California, ONC started working with state emergency medical services officials last year to begin connecting the state’s 35 health information exchange organizations (HIEs) and EMS organizations. This effort was launched to help ensure health data access during emergencies.

The program is working on a pilot project involving several counties in California.  However, the Northern California earthquake reminds us that there is much work to do, and it must happen faster statewide and nationwide. We simply cannot make assumptions about how best to prepare for emergencies. In recognition of the importance of this initiative, the HHS Idea Lab awarded a joint ONC/ASPR proposal for the inaugural HHS Ventures Program.  The team has been actively engaged in this project as well as other ways technology can improve the routine delivery of care and disaster response – all in an effort to create more resilient communities.

Continue reading “Expecting the Unexpected”

Karen DeSalvoDuring National Minority Health Month, we acknowledge the potential for health information technology (health IT) – from electronic and personal health records to online communities to mobile applications – to transform health care and improve the health of racial and ethnic minorities.

Lack of access to quality, preventive health care, cultural and linguistic barriers, and limited patient-provider communication are factors that aggravate health disparities.

By increasing our investment in health IT policies and standards, we can help improve the quality of health care delivery and make it easier for patients and providers to communicate with each other – a huge step toward addressing the persistence of health disparities.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project External Links Disclaimer found in 2012  that African Americans and Latinos are more likely to own a mobile phone than whites and outpace whites in mobile app use, using their phones for a wider range of activities.

The study showed that African Americans and Latinos use their mobile phones more often to look for health information online. This has very important implications for personal management of health and interaction with the health care system.

However, barriers to widespread adoption of health IT remain.

For example, a 2014 consumer engagement report found that minorities were less likely to adopt online patient portals to access their health information than were non-Hispanic whites.

Continue reading “Advancing Health Equity in the Digital Age”

flying cadeuciiThe Food and Drug Administration has spent decades refining its processes for approving drugs and devices (and is still refining them), so what would happen if they extended their scope to the exploding health software industry?

The FDA, and its parent organization, the Department of Health and Human Services, are facing an unpleasant and politically difficult choice.

Sticking regulatory fences into the fertile plains of software development and low-cost devices will arouse its untamed denizens, who are already lobbying Congress to warn the FDA about overreaching. But to abandon the field is to leave patients and regular consumers unprotected. This is the context in which the Food and Drug Administration, the Office of National Coordinator, after consultation with outside stakeholders, released a recent report on Health IT.

I myself was encouraged by the report. It brings together a number of initiatives that have received little attention and, just by publicizing the issues, places us one step closer to a quality program. Particular aspects that pleased me are:

  • The suggestion that quality programs should start to look at electronic health records (p. 8). EHRs have been certified by various bodies, but usually just to check off boxes and declare that the systems comply with regulations–neither the quality of their user interfaces nor the quality of their implementations have been questioned. Reportedly, the FDA considered “safety and quality standards” for electronic health records in 2010 but couldn’t get them adopted. It also checks certain forms of clinical decision support, but only if they are built into a regulated device. The current HHS report refers back to aspirational documents such as a Health Information Technology Patient Safety Action & Surveillance Plan and a set of guidelines on the safety of EHRs.
  • A call for transparent reporting and sharing of errors, including the removal of “disincentives to transparent reporting”–i.e., legal threats by vendors (p. 25). Error reporting is clearly a part of the “environment of learning and continual improvement” I mentioned earlier. A regulation subgroup stated the need most starkly: “It is essential to improve adverse events reporting, and to enable timely and broader public access to safety and performance data.” Vague talk of a Health IT Safety Center (p. 4, pp. 14-15) unfortunately seems to stop with education, lacking enforcement. I distinctly disagree with the assessment of two commentators who compared the Health IT Safety Center to the National Transportation Safety Board and assigned it some potential power. However, I will ask ONC and FDA for clarification.
  • A recognition that software is part of a larger workflow and social system, that designing it to meet people’s needs is important, and that all stakeholders should have both a say in software development and a responsibility to use it properly.

Don’t imagine that the FDA is unused to regulating software. For quite some time they have instituted practices for the software used in some medical devices , and have tried to keep them up-to-date.

A waterfall-like process of risk assessment and testing called computer system validation has long been required for pharma and devices.

Continue reading “Health IT: The Coming Regulation”

Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 1.01.04 PM

In a development that Washington insiders had been quietly predicting for months,  Kathleen Sebelius announced Thursday that she is resigning as HHS Secretary. Critics were quick to point to the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov and the glitch-filled rollout of the administration’s signature health law.

President Obama is expected to nominate  OMB  Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell to replace Sebelius Friday morning.  The Washington Post notes that Mathews-Burwell is well regarded for her “strong management skills”  and cites her experience in global health after ten years with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Politico reports that while publicly praising Sebelius for having overseen a late surge in enrollments that brought signups up to the 7.5 million mark  by the time she announced her departure today,  many Democrats are said to be privately “furious” about how badly the Obamacare rollout went and are worried that debacle could cost them control of the Senate in November.

If you’re curious about Burwell’s resume – after all – we’re talking about the woman who will (probably) be the official face of Obamacare until at least 2017 – WonkBlog did some digging back at the time of the hearings for the OMB job.

Continue reading “ACA Signups hit 7.5 million. Sebelius Steps Down. Mathews-Burwell to Lead HHS.”

The Obama administration announced significant adoption for the Blue Button in the private sector on Friday.

In a post at the White House Office of Science and Technology blog, Nick Sinai, U.S. deputy chief technology officer and Adam Dole, a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, listed major pharmacies and retailers joining the Blue Button initiative, which enables people to download a personal health record in an open, machine-readable electronic format:

“These commitments from some of the Nation’s largest retail pharmacy chains and associations promise to provide a growing number of patients with easy and secure access to their own personal pharmacy prescription history and allow them to check their medication history for accuracy, access prescription lists from multiple doctors, and securely share this information with their healthcare providers,” they wrote.

“As companies move towards standard formats and the ability to securely transmit this information electronically, Americans will be able to use their pharmacy records with new innovative software applications and services that can improve medication adherence, reduce dosing errors, prevent adverse drug interactions, and save lives.”

While I referred to the Blue Button obliquely at ReadWrite almost two years ago and in many other stories, I can’t help but wish that I’d finished my feature for Radar a year ago and written up a full analytical report.

Extending access to a downloadable personal health record to millions of Americans has been an important, steady shift that has largely gone unappreciated, despite reporting like Ina Fried’s regarding veterans getting downloadable health information.

According to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, “more than 5.4 million veterans have now downloaded their Blue Button data and more than 500 companies and organizations in the private-sector have pledged to support it.”

Continue reading “The Pharmacies and Retailers Say They’re In. Is the Blue Button Initiative About to Change Everything?”

Last week, HHS issued its much-anticipated report about the first wave of enrollees in the state and federal health exchanges. Its release coincided with the 32nd Annual J P Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, arguably Woodstock for health care investors.

HHS reported that, as of December 28, 2.2 million signed up for coverage. They are older and probably sicker than the overall population of 50 million uninsured in the U.S.:

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Per the analysis, 54% of these are female, 71% are eligible for financial assistance and most signed up for silver plans (60%) vs. the more expensive platinum (7%) and gold (13%) or the less costly bronze (1%) options.

The 14 states run exchanges fared well in the first 90 days accounting for 956,991 enrollees—most in blue states where governors were supportive of the exchange effort. In fact, 10 exceeded their enrollment target even though the national target fell 1.1 million short.

Continue reading “Field Report from JP Morgan 2014″

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