July 23, 2020

Concerns and Skepticism about HHS’ Transition to New Hospital Data Collection System

As you may have heard, last week, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a change in how states and hospitals are to report critical data about the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of reporting data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Health Safety Network, states must report data from hospitals directly to the “HHS Protect system” or a system called TeleTracking. (The HHS Protect system was established in April 2020 and up until last week has combined data from multiple public and private systems, including the National Health Safety Network.)

The decision to transition away from the CDC’s National Health Safety Network made national headlines, with many public health experts questioning why HHS would make such a seismic decision in the middle of a pandemic. Since it announced the change the CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield and other Trump Administration officials have repeatedly defended the move. Last week, Dr. Redfield publicly stated that the CDC will still be able to conduct all of the public analyses that the agency releases on a routine basis, including the much relied upon Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports (MMWRs). In Dr. Redfield’s words, “no one is taking access or data away from CDC…Approximately 1,000 CDC experts have and continue to have access to the raw data collected in HHS Protect—in addition to thousands of other public health professionals across HHS.”

Despite the reassurances from Dr. Redfield and others, ACEP is concerned and immediately arranged a call with CDC last Thursday to discuss the full implications of this policy change. Unfortunately, CDC staff were unable to answer many of our initial questions about how the change would impact the CDC’s and the public’s access to the data since many of the operational details were still being worked out. On Friday, we sent out a member alert highlighting our concerns about the policy and updating our members about our next steps to follow up with the CDC.

The saga continues this week. On Monday, HHS officially launched its new website that holds the data: Along with this announcement, HHS released a questions and answers document that reaffirms some of the points made by Dr. Redfield last week that the data on HHS Protect will not be manipulated “by political appointees within the government and that “hundreds of CDC staff have access to the system.” Interestingly, in a separate email that HHS sent to stakeholders, HHS stated that “key parties” will have access to hospital-specific data—which begs the question of who these “key parties” are and whether all the data will truly be transparent and made publicly available.

I explored the new website and did not find it to be too consumer friendly. To find certain data elements of interest, I had to download large data files and excel spreadsheets. It remains to be seen whether HHS makes modifications to the website in order to make the information more easily digestible to the public and meaningful to individuals, businesses, and state and local officials.

In all, ACEP remains concerned about the policy change and skeptical that all the data that the public needs to know about to make informed decisions will be made available. Today, we have another meeting with CDC staff to see if they can address our remaining questions. We are committed to keeping you updated and continuing to reiterate to administration officials that having full access to data is absolutely critical as our nation responds to this unprecedented crisis. In the meantime, please let me know if you have any particular questions you want us to raise with the CDC or other federal agencies and/or if you are having trouble accessing certain information that you need to help inform your response efforts.

Until next week, this is Jeffrey saying, enjoy reading regs with your eggs! And, like last week, I want to remind you that the 2021 Medicare physician fee schedule proposed reg could be released any day now—so stay tuned!

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