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A Troubling Strategy at Health IT Week

Health IT Week demonstrated a double barrel strategy to segregate patient information from provider information. Providers already have the power to set prices and health IT plays the central role.

By rebranding HIPAA as “Meaningful Consent” and making patients second-class citizens in Meaningful Use Stage 2 interoperability, providers and regulators are working together to keep it that way.

Essential consumer protections such as price transparency or independent decision support are scarce in the US healthcare system. The journalists are shouting from the rooftops.

There’s  $1 Trillion (yes, $3,000 per person per year) of unwarranted and overpriced health services steering the Federal health IT bus with an information asymmetry strategy. Those of us that want to see universal coverage succeed need the information transparency tools to drive for changes.

Here’s how it works: The department of Health and Human Services (HHS) controls the health IT incentives and regulations. HIPAA applies to most licensed health services providers. Laboratories and devices are regulated by Medicare and the FDA.

Unlicensed services offered directly to patients, such as personal health records, web info sites and apps are regulated by the FTC. Separate regulatory domains facilitate the segregation of information and contribute to the lack of transparency by making patient-directed services use delayed and degraded information. This keeps independent advice from FTC-regulated service providers from illuminating the specific abuses.

The segregation of patient information from “provider” information is the current federal regulatory strategy. It’s even more so in the states. By making patients into second-class citizens, the providers can avoid open scrutiny, transparent pricing, and independent decision support.

Federal regulators then create a parallel system where information is delayed, diluted, and depreciated by lack of “authenticity”. This is promoted as “patient engagement”. For regulators, it’s a win-win solution: the providers support the regulation that enables their price fixing and many patient advocates get to swoon over patient engagement efforts.

The proof of this strategy became clear on the first day of Health IT Week – the Consumer Health IT Summit.

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Give Us Our Damn Lab Results!!

Two years ago, the Department of Health and Human Services released proposed regulations that would allow patients to obtain their clinical lab test results directly from the lab, rather than having to wait to receive the results from their health care provider.  CDT and other consumer groups enthusiastically supported this proposed rule at the time of its release.

Yet an Administration largely characterized by increasing patient access to health information seems inexplicably unable to close the deal on this important access initiative.  As a result, patients still must wait for their providers to contact them with test results.

Under the current regulations, known as the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA), laboratories are restricted from disclosing test results to patients directly.  Instead, labs can only send the test results to health care providers, people authorized to receive test results under state law or other labs. Only a handful of states permit labs to send patients test results directly, and some of these states require the provider’s permission before patients can have the results.  The HIPAA Privacy Rule reflects this restriction, exempting CLIA-regulated labs (which are the great majority of clinical labs) from patients’ existing right to access their health information.

This existing regime has put patients at risk. A 2009 study published in the Archive of Internal Medicine indicated that providers failed to notify patients (or document notification) of abnormal test results more than 7 percent of the time. The National Coordinator for Health IT recently put the figure at 20 percent.  This failure rate is dangerous, as it could lead to more medical errors and missed opportunities for valuable early treatment.

The 2011 proposed regulations would modify CLIA to permit labs to send results directly to patients, and they would also modify the HIPAA Privacy Rule to give patients the right to access or receive their lab results.  Contrary state laws would be preempted.  Patients would have the ability to request their lab results in a particular form or format, as with their other health information; for example, patients could request a paper copy of their test results, or to have the results sent electronically to the their personal health records

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Replacing Farzad

In the wake of the National Coordinator’s announcement that he is departing, there has been a flurry of tweets, blog posts, impromptu online polls, and conjecture about the most likely successor.  To date, none of these conversations has resulted in a thoughtful assessment of the set of characteristics that would represent the ideal candidate, nor has there been any thorough review of the most likely candidates in the context of these attributes.  The need for a rapid transition to a successor is well understood by all – yet there has been no indication that the Obama administration is in a hurry.  Let’s hope that we can evolve them toward a greater sense of urgency. The fragility of ONC – and the importance of its health – can’t be overlooked.

Let’s consider some history:

The first two National Coordinators, David Brailer and Rob Kolodner, were appointed before ARRA.  The agency was small, focused largely on certification (through CCHIT), standards (through HITSP) and policy.  When ARRA arrived, David Blumenthal, a thoughtful, deliberate, policy-savvy internal medicine physician from Boston was brought in to lead the rapid expansion of health IT that was facilitated by the HITECH Act.

ONC expanded under Blumenthal from a team of ~ 30 people to a team of >100 in the two years that he was at the helm, and the agency published the 2011 certification criteria regulations, and collaborated with CMS to publish the regulations that defined stage 1 of the Meaningful Use incentive program.  The policy foundation was that the three-stage program – to be implemented over six years – would evolve the nation’s care delivery system by causing adoption of EHR technology (stage 1) and then exchange of clinical information electronically (stage 2) and finally improved clinical outcomes (stage 3).

Farzad Mostashari, who joined Blumenthal as the Deputy National Coordinator early in Dr Blumenthal’s tenure, was quickly named as Blumenthal’s successor when Blumenthal announced his resignation in the Spring of 2011.  Both Mostashari and Blumenthal pushed hard for Mostashari’s appointment – so that the consistency, focus and forward momentum of the organization could be maintained.

And so it was.  Under ARRA, adoption of EHRs has skyrocketed.  The CMS MU Stage 2 regulations and the ONC 2014 certification regulations were published, and the size of the agency has doubled to over 150 people.  Recognizing the need for experienced partners to assist him in leading a larger agency – and growing national reliance on health IT and an essential component of the care delivery ecosystem – Mostashari hired David Muntz as the “Principal Deputy” (essentially the COO of the agency), Jacob Reider as Chief Medical Officer (leading a team of clinicians focused on quality and safety) and Judy Murphy as the Deputy National Coordinator for Programs and Policy (adding internal coordination support for ONC programs).

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In a Quiet Move, Washington Replaces the Head of AHRQ. Is It Too Late to Save the Agency?

Stealthily, AHRQ has acquired a new head, but the ax still hovers over it.

Very quietly, researcher Richard Kronick, PhD was named by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to be the new director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ). He joins an organization that remains squarely on the House GOP’s chopping block and with few friends strong enough to ward off the blow.

Last fall, when a House appropriations subcommittee voted to eliminate all AHRQ funding, I wrote that the agency’s execution went almost unnoticed: it didn’t even rate a separate mention in the committee’s lengthy press release.

Back then, the House GOP’s big target was Big Bird, a/k/a funding for public broadcasting. Since then, the rampaging Republican right-wing has decided it won’t approve subsidies to farmers unless it can also slash food stamps to the poor and that undocumented immigrants are mostly a law-and-order problem, not a human one. That these positions contradict views held by many conservative Republican senators, governors and party leaders has had little to no effect.

Enter Kronick, after a months-long search to replace Dr. Carolyn Clancy, who’d held the top AHRQ post since February, 2003. Oddly, the announcement by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wasn’t posted on the HHS website or even the AHRQ one. Searching Kronick’s name simply turned up press releases from his current position as deputy assistant secretary for health policy. According to MedPage Today, the naming of Kronick was made “in the department’s daily electronic afternoon newsletter.”

Why? My guess: politics.

Clancy was known for good relations with policymakers of both parties; she was upgraded from “acting director” to permanent status during the George W. Bush administration. Her predecessor, Dr. John Eisenberg, enjoyed a similar bipartisan rapport. Of course, that was before conservatism gave way to crusaders. Kronick, by contrast, has a background almost tailor-made to tick off Tea Partyers.

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The Federal Health Data Services Hub Hubbub

Secrecy breeds suspicion. The role of secrecy in health care is practically non-existent so when we see examples of secrecy, as in the operational details of the Federal Data Services Hub, we get the recent outcry from a range of politicians and journalists waving privacy flags. For Patient Privacy Rights, this is a teachable moment relative to both advocates and detractors of the Affordable Care Act.

There’s a clear parallel between the recent concerns around NSA communications surveillance and health care surveillance under the ACA. Some surveillance is justified, to combat terrorism and fraud respectively, but unwarranted secrecy breeds suspicion and may not help our civil society.

“The Hub” is described by the government as:

“For all marketplaces, CMS [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] is also building a tool called the Data Services Hub to help with verifying applicant information used to determine eligibility for enrollment in qualified health plans and insurance affordability programs.  The hub will provide one connection to the common federal data sources (including but not limited to SSA, IRS, DHS) needed to verify consumer application information for income, citizenship, immigration status, access to minimum essential coverage, etc.

CMS has completed the technical design, and reference architecture for this work, is establishing a cross-agency security framework as well as the protocols for connectivity, and has begun testing the hub.  The hub will not store consumer information, but will securely transmit data between state and federal systems to verify consumer application information. Protecting the privacy of individuals remains the highest priority of CMS.”

Here’s where the secrecy comes in: I tried to find out some specific information about the Hub. Technical or policy details that would enable one to apply Fair Information Practice Principles? Some open evidence of privacy by design? Some evidence of participation by privacy experts? I got nothing. Where’s Mr. Snowden when we need him?

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Getting Obamacare’s Messaging Right

Recently, there was a bit of a dust-up over whether it was appropriate for the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to engage the National Football League (NFL) to help HHS with the process of drumming-up enrollment for health insurance exchanges. In the end, the NFL and other sports leagues decided they were not going to be involved fearing the appearance of taking political sides.

In our view HHS is better off with this outcome. To our way of thinking the exercise would not have delivered the desired results and would have left individuals confused and created a political distraction. At the heart of most public health communication plans are three main functions: create a message, deliver the message and get people to act on the message (many variations: exampleexample, and example). The HHS/NFL combo would likely have failed the test:  What exactly does someone who catches a football for a living say that would make the uninsured purchase insurance on an exchange? While it’s easy to single out HHS and the administration, the opposition party also thinks messaging alone will solve all of its ills but that is far from correct assumption in our view. 

In terms of creating a message, our first instinct would be to recommend a governmental agency like the FCC but for healthcare. We would call it something like the clinical communications clarification committee (CCCC).  However, given recent concerns about “Orwellian” government information gathering, perhaps a more open-source, crowd-sourced approach to communicating may be more readily accepted. What we have in mind is a something like Pubmed meets Wikipedia where the information is readily available, credible, and based on updated facts. Inevitably something like this would need to be proctored to keep unreliable information out. Many crowd-sourced communities do a good job of self-policing but it couldn’t hurt to have an adult watching just in case.

Assuming we can create information (the message) in a way that is understandable and credible, how to transmit this information (the medium) becomes the next challenge. While we are pretty sure the “wired generation” who wear body monitoring devices are getting the “right” information via mobile devices, the web etc., we think that more important populations that are not technologically savvy may be missing out. Dual-eligibles for example, who are major drivers of cost and poor outcomes in the system, are not in our view, easily able to access useful information via high-tech gadgetry.

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Knocking the Palooza Out of the Data

Just back from the Health Datapalooza confab that took place last week – an event now in its 4th year hosted by the federal government. I had a few lingering thoughts to share. First, on the event name: I’m guessing it came out of my old business partner and current national CTO Todd Park’s experience in Washington, where trying to get any single distinct thought through “the interests” could knock the “palooza” out of a grown stallion.

You’d think the federal government would be the last ones to host a Datapalooza, but the fact is NO ONE ELSE has stepped up!

So they did.

And complain as I might about the G-men and G-women being industry conference conveners (makes me want to bathe with a wire brush) they pulled it off pretty darn well. The Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) attracted hundreds of serious entrepreneurs… and hundreds more wannabes (who real entrepreneurs desperately need in order to feel cool).

And boy were there some great bloopers…

Kaiser came blistering onto the scene with an open API—to the location and hours of operation of its facilities! Kinda sounds like Yelp to me…I’d be surprised if developers will come a runnin’ to that one. Kaiser’s CIO (a very cool guy whom they or anyone in health care would be lucky to get) broke this news in a two-minute keynote speech. Imagine President Obama announcing, in a State of the Union address, that the green vegetables in the White House cafeteria were now much crunchier!

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius applied similarly excessive fanfare announcing the release of cost data for 30 ambulatory procedures. The whole idea that Toddy (Park) was trying to get going with this Palooza was not to release REPORTS on things but to release the SOURCE data so that anyone with proper security and privacy clearance could INVENT a million reports that no one had ever conceived before!

So here are my thoughts on all of this, some of which I shared at the conference in my way-longer-than-two-minute keynote:

1. Release the data!! Secretary Sebelius announcing the release of cost data for 30 ambulatory procedures during her keynote felt like the Secretary of Energy serving up a can of 10W30 to oil companies to drill into.

Her words were great. To wit: “The fact that this [unlocking the data] is growing by leaps and bounds is a good indication that we can leapfrog over years and decades of inaction into an exciting new future.” YES! GO GIRRRL!  OK, so…where’s the data?

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Health Datapalooza Day One: How Will We Grow Data for Improving Health?

An unfathomably complex entity such as a health system grows over time like a city. Right now, communications and data usage in the US healthcare system is a bit like a medieval town, with new streets and squares popping up in unpredictable places and no clear paths between them. Growth in health information has accelerated tremendously over the past few years with the popularity of big data generally, and we are still erecting structures wherever seems convenient, without building codes.

In some cities, as growth reaches the breaking point, commissioners step in. Neighborhoods are razed, conduits are laid in the ground for electricity and plumbing, and magnificent new palaces take the place of the old slums. But our health infomation system lacks its Baron Haussmann. The only force that could seize that role–the Office ofthe National Coordinator–has been slow to impose order, even as it funds the creation of open standards. Today, however, we celebrate growth and imagine a future of ordered data.

The health data forum that started today (Health Datapalooza IV) celebrated all the achievements across government and industry in creating, using, and sharing health data.

Useful data, but not always usable

I came here asking two essential questions of people I met: “What data sources do you find most useful now?” and “What data is missing that you wish you had?” The answer to first can be found at a wonderful Health Data All-Stars site maintained by the Health Data Consortium,which is running the palooza.

The choices on this site include a lot of data from the Department of Health and Human Services, also available on their ground-breaking HealthData.gov site, but also a number of data sets from other places. The advantage of the All-Stars site is that it features just a few (fifty) sites that got high marks from a survey conducted among a wide range of data users, including government agencies, research facilities, and health care advocates. Continue reading…

Is the Suspension of the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan a Preview of Obamacare’s Failure?

Following the Obama administration’s announcement about the suspension of enrollment in a high-risk health insurance program known as the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan, a flurry of commentary began on what the move means for the Affordable Care Act.

Some observers said that the program’s underwhelming enrollment numbers and high costs foreshadow inevitable problems with the ACA’s health insurance exchanges, while others drew a clear division between a program intended to insure only those with pre-existing health conditions and state marketplaces designed to spread risk by insuring both those who are sick and those in good health.

Two months after the halted enrollment, the debate continues.

Closing the Pools

The high-risk pools were designed to help sick U.S. residents gain coverage ahead of January 2014, when the ACA’s ban on denying individuals coverage because of pre-existing conditions will take effect.

In early February, the administration announced several cost-saving reforms intended to prevent the $5 billion program from running out of money. However, on Feb. 15, HHS officials announced that enrollment in the high-risk pools would end because of rising costs and limited funding.

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The Arkansas Experiment: Is the ‘Private Option’ a Realistic Plan For Medicaid?

Arkansas is now the first state to use Medicaid expansion dollars to buy private coverage for many of its 250,000 newly eligible residents rather than enroll them in the existing Medicaid program. This week the Arkansas House of Representatives approved the plan, followed by the  Senate, to confirm that the state will be implementing this “market-based approach” to expanding Medicaid.

The idea of buying private insurance for Medicaid recipients is emerging as a “conservative compromise” for some of the 24 states (home to more than 25 million uninsured residents) leaning toward rejecting federal funding the Affordable Care Act provides for the expansion. In the original legislation, the ACA required states to expand Medicaid to adults earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, $15,870 for an individual or $32,499 for a family of four. The federal government would fully cover the costs of this expansion for two years, with states gradually having to contribute 10% by 2020. Last summer, the Supreme Court struck down the Medicaid expansion requirement, allowing states to refuse federal funding and opt out of the expansion.

But most of these states, including Florida, Texas and Indiana, are leaving a lot of money on the table—from hundreds of millions to $1 billion or more in federal funding.  Under pressure from healthcare providers and other interested parties, some governors view premium assistance programs that move the poor, disabled and frail elderly to the state insurance exchanges to buy private insurance as a way to capture this windfall without appearing to embrace ObamaCare.

In Missouri, for example, Republican state legislator Jay Barnes calls the Obama administration’s plan for Medicaid expansion a “one-size-fits-all, far-left-wing ideological path.”

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