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Top Obama Administration Officials Press for Health IT Advances

By Kerry Young, CQ Roll Call

May 9, 2016 -- Top officials of the Obama administration on Monday pressed Silicon Valley investors, software developers and others in the technology community for help in making medical records easier to understand and share. Improved use of the information underpins many of the president's major goals for health policy.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell and Karen DeSalvo, the national coordinator for health information technology, all made appeals at the seventh annual Health Datapalooza conference in Washington.

Biden sought to apply to his so-called cancer "moonshot" initiative the lessons from successes already attributed to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' (CMS) decision in recent years to make its data more available to entrepreneurs. Biden is leading a campaign to better unify resources to battle the disease that last year claimed the life of his 46-year-old son. 

More than 2,100 data sets have been made available, unveiling much about almost all aspects of the workings of traditional government-run Medicare program, Biden said. 

"Looks at what it's led to. Using publicly available Medicare data, innovators like you in this room have launched companies that give information about hospital and doctors' performance," Biden said. "Emergency medicine doctors are using information about E.R. visits and wait times and outcomes to help create an app to guide ambulances and even the public to the best places for emergency care. Well, folks, why can't we do the same kind of thing in the battle against cancer?"

Biden also singled out former HHS chief technology officer Todd Park, who was in the audience, for kicking off this change in attitude. Health Datapalooza has grown from a small gathering in 2010 of officials from the White House and federal agencies and members of tech community to a highly anticipated annual IT event. Datapalooza also bears the stamp of Niall Brennan, who in 2014 was named the first CMS chief data officer. Brennan is a strong advocate for CMS working with the tech entrepreneurs as partners in analyzing medical data in search of ways to improve medical care.

"Think health care data is important? How many events do @JoeBiden, @SecBurwell, @KBDeSalvo & I all speak at?" tweeted Andy Slavitt, the acting administrator of CMS, on Monday ahead of his own appearance Tuesday at the conference.

Burwell and DeSalvo each on Monday highlighted contests intended to stir the interest of companies and organizations in developing products that would simplify the practice of medicine from the views of doctors and patients. DeSalvo spoke of two funding opportunities worth $1.5 million to work toward common standards that support the sharing of health information.

"We have made significant progress in the flow of health information, but we still have work to do to ensure different systems speak the same language," DeSalvo said.

Burwell promoted an AARP-sponsored contest meant to make medical bills easier for consumers to understand. The winning designs for new bills will be featured at the Health 2.0 annual fall conference this September. Six medical networks, including Pennsylvania's Geisinger Health System, have agreed to test the winning designs. 

Advanced information technology underpins the efforts Burwell is leading to tie Medicare payments more closely to judgments about the quality of service provided to elderly and disabled Americans. 

"We still have work to do to get the kind of open connected health system that is needed for lasting system transformation, but we know what we need to improve," Burwell said at the meeting.

CMS estimates that almost $1 of every $3 spent in the traditional fee-for-service program now runs through one of the special projects that include measures of how often doctors and other providers of health care follow certain practices and coordinated care, and how their patients fared. The foundation of these efforts is having the technology to make these assessments, Burwell said.

"You can't improve quality, or pay for it, if you don't know what quality is," Burwell said.

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