|Fourteen of the nation’s largest health systems announced this week that they have joined together to form a new, for-profit data company aimed at aggregating and mining their clinical data. Called Truveta, the company will draw on the de-identified health records of millions of patients from thousands of care sites across 40 states, allowing researchers, physicians, biopharma companies, and others to draw insights aimed at “improving the lives of those they serve.” |
Health system participants include the multi-state Catholic systems CommonSpirit Health, Trinity Health, Providence, and Bon Secours Mercy, the for-profit system Tenet Healthcare, and a number of regional systems. The new company will be led by former Microsoft executive Terry Myerson, who has been working on the project since March of last year. As large technology companies like Amazon and Google continue to build out healthcare offerings, and national insurers like UnitedHealth Group and Aetna continue to grow their analytical capabilities based on physician, hospital, and pharmacy encounters, it’s surprising that hospital systems are only now mobilizing in a concerted way to monetize the clinical data they generate.
Like Civica, an earlier health system collaboration around pharmaceutical manufacturing, Truveta’s launch signals that large national and regional systems are waking up to the value of scale they’ve amassed over time, moving beyond pricing leverage to capture other benefits from the size of their clinical operations—and exploring non-merger partnerships to create value from collaboration. There will inevitably be questions about how patient data is used by Truveta and its eventual customers, but we believe the venture holds real promise for harnessing the power of massive clinical datasets to drive improvement in how care is delivered.
- Centene has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Phoenix, Arizona-based Magellan Health for $2.2 billion, or $95 per share, the payer said Monday. Magellan will operate independently under the Centene umbrella.
- Executives said the combination will result in one of the nation’s largest behavioral health platforms as the two will provide behavioral services to about 41 million members in the U.S.
- The deal also boosts Centene’s already established footprint in government sponsored health plans with the addition of 5.5 million lives and another 2.2 million to add to its pharmacy benefit management platform.
The deal is designed to boost Centene’s ability to market a “whole health” approach for its members. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the need to care for more than just a member’s physical health by also caring for their mental health, the company said Monday.
“This has become even more evident in light of the pandemic which has driven a dramatic rise in behavioral health needs,” Centene CEO Michael Neidorff said in statement. Both boards unanimously approved the deal.
Magellan Health provides managed care and pharmacy services for an array of clients that include health plans, unions and third-party administrators. Centene has been a client of Magellan’s in years past.
Magellan leans on analytics and other technologies in an attempt to improve health outcomes and lower costs. In addition to behavioral health, Magellan focuses on high-cost or complex patients for its clients. In its presentation to investors on Monday, Centene said 71% of total healthcare costs in the U.S. are spent on complex patients, illustrating the need for the deal.
For its healthcare management services, Magellan typically enters into risk-based contracts with its clients where it assumes all or a substantial portion of the risk in exchange for a per member, per month fee. Or, Magellan will enter into an administrative services only agreement in which it reviews utilization and claims administration and manages provider networks, according to its latest 10-Q filing.
The deal is expected to close in the second half of the year pending regulatory approvals. CEO Ken Fasola and other Magellan executives will continue their leadership roles.
Last year, Centene completed its blockbuster acquisition of rival WellCare, a $17 billion deal that catapulted the company to the fourth-largest insurer by membership when including Aetna, which is now part of CVS Health. The deal also doubled Centene’s Medicare Advantage footprint. Centene’s core business is Medicaid managed care and it is the largest insurer on the Affordable Care Act exchanges.
The public deserves the most complete data available about COVID-19 in the US. No official source is providing it, so we are.
Every day, our volunteers compile the latest numbers on tests, cases, hospitalizations, and patient outcomes from every US state and territory.
A patchwork approach to contact tracing across state health departments is making it increasingly difficult to know where people are getting exposed to COVID-19.
While some states like Louisiana and Washington state publicly track detailed data related to COVID-19 cases in bars, camps, daycares, churches, worksites and restaurants, most states do not, creating obstacles to preventing future cases.
The extensive spread of the virus, combined with the country’s 50-state approach to pandemic response, has led to a dearth of information about where transmissions are occurring. Those shortcomings are in turn complicating efforts to safely open the economy and to understand the risks associated with certain activities and settings.
Experts know COVID-19 spreads in crowded indoor spaces, but more specifics could help state and local lawmakers strike a better balance between public health needs and those of the economy.
“If you want to take a more targeted approach to public health measures, the more information you have the better,” said Joshua Michaud, an associate director for global health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation and an infectious disease epidemiologist.
“Rather than have a blunt, close-everything-down approach, you could be a bit more targeted and surgical about how you implement certain measures,” he added.
The Hill asked every state for information about the data they collect and share as part of their contact tracing programs, one of the main tools public health officials have to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Most states release information about outbreaks and cases at congregate settings like nursing homes, meatpacking plants, and prisons, which comprise the majority of cases. But there is less information publicly available about the numbers of cases or outbreaks tied to other settings commonly visited by people.
A handful of states including Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington track and publicly release data on the settings where COVID-19 outbreaks are occurring, according to responses from state health departments.
For example, Louisiana has tied 468 cases to bars in the state, but most of the new cases in the past week have been tied to food processing plants.
In The Hill’s review of publicly available state data, other settings for COVID-19 transmission include restaurants, childcare centers, gyms, colleges and schools, churches, retailers, weddings and other private social events. It is not clear how widely those settings contributed to infections because widespread transmission of the virus means many people who get sick do not get interviewed by contact tracers — over the past week, there has been an average of 42,000 confirmed cases, though many more are likely going undetected.
State health departments in Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia told The Hill they don’t track location data.
Utah tracks outbreaks and cases tied to workplaces and schools, but not restaurants or bars.
Arizona, California, Delaware, Indiana, Oregon and Pennsylvania track infection locations, but don’t release it to the public.
“The number of people getting COVID-19 from isolated, identifiable outbreaks, such as those in long term care facilities, is decreasing, and more people are contracting COVID-19 from being out and about in their community, such as when visiting restaurants and bars,” said Maggi Mumma, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Bars, indoor dining and gyms are still closed in most of New York and New Jersey, so there is no current data to track for those settings.
But the state health departments also don’t release data on outbreaks or cases tied to other settings like childcare or retail stores.
For example, Minnesota lists nearly 7,000 cases as being tied to “community” exposure, but that includes settings like restaurants, bars and workspaces.
In Iowa, a state health department spokesperson said the agency is working on extracting and sharing this type of data on its website, while Maine would not say if they track by specific location.
The remaining state health departments did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Hill and don’t have information about outbreaks or exposure settings on their websites.
Several states said local health departments may be tracking infection locations even if the state is not.
Experts said such a decentralized approach can miss outbreaks if local departments aren’t communicating with each other, meaning any data should be public.
“I do think it would be very valuable for states to make that information public,” said Crystal Watson, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“It helps us collectively get a better understanding as policymakers, as people trying to help in the response. It can also help with personal decision making for people to understand … where it’s most dangerous to go related to getting infected,” Watson said.
The disparities between state health departments are partially due to a lack of federal guidance.
There are no federal requirements on the information contact tracers collect; guidelines vary from state to state, and sometimes from county to county.
Tracking data about where people are getting sick would allow states to take a “cluster busting” approach, experts said, by working backwards from confirmed cases to find where patients might have first contracted the disease, potentially stopping future outbreaks.
That approach requires a change in mindset for contact tracers, who typically focus on reaching close contacts of confirmed cases who might have been exposed to the virus. But research shows between 10 and 20 percent of people are responsible for about 80 percent of new infections, mostly through so-called super-spreader events.
“We know that the way this virus has transmitted is highly clustered groups and anytime you have settings where a lot of people are together in one place,” said Kaiser’s Michaud.
“Collecting good information on this — the cluster busting approach — is a good way to find out where your prevention efforts can have the best bang for your buck,” he said.
At the same time, some state programs are still not operating at full force and are struggling to keep up with widespread infections.
“I think that many parts of the country, especially outside of the Northeast … simply have too many cases to use contact tracing as the primary public health measure to control cases,” said Stephen Kissler, a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. School of Public Health.
“It’s just not enough,” he said. “We just don’t have enough resources, and in a lot of these places enough contact tracers, to follow up on all of the cases.”
“The data don’t show anything useful”
Problems with the government’s rationale for authorizing use of convalescent plasma in COVID-19 patients go far beyond the dustup over the purported 35% survival benefit cited by top officials on Sunday, numerous researchers say.
That figure quickly came under fire, leading to an apology from Commissioner Stephen Hahn, MD — but that’s not the only criticism leveled at the FDA’s analysis of the available data.
Much of it came from the Mayo Clinic and FDA expanded access program (EAP), at this point published only as a preprint manuscript. Although a large number of patients were included, the study was observational only, with no untreated control group. That makes the findings merely hypothesis-generating, and can’t offer any firm conclusions.
That’s fine for issuing an emergency use authorization (EUA), but not so much for making claims about survival benefit, independent researchers said.
“It’s not even a question of overstating,” Adam Gaffney, MD, MPH, a critical care doctor and health policy researcher at Harvard Medical School, told MedPage Today. “You can’t state much at all when you don’t have a randomized controlled trial.”
“People have made a big deal of Hahn referring to relative versus absolute risk reduction, but I think that’s less of a big deal,” Gaffney said. “The biggest problem is that the data they are citing … is not randomized. That’s the source of all the problems.”
Hahn took heat for saying that a “35% improvement in survival is a pretty substantial clinical benefit” further explaining that of “100 people who are sick with COVID-19, 35 would have been saved because of the administration of plasma.”
Critics rapidly took to Twitter, stating that the interpretation was incorrect. Hahn was referring to relative risk reduction, not absolute risk reduction. Thus, calculating the number of lives saved — which isn’t something experts recommend doing based on observational data in the first place — would have translated to somewhere more in the ballpark of 5 out of 100.
Moreover, the “risk reduction” came from a comparison of patients treated with high-titer plasma versus those receiving lower-titer preparations. The study offered no basis for concluding how many patients may have been “saved” relative to standard care.
And the 35% reduction in that analysis was for 7-day mortality; the relative reduction at 30 days was only 23%.
Hahn’s recital of the 35% figure “was just PART of the error,” tweeted Vinay Prasad, MD, MPH, of the University of California San Francisco. “The entire comparison is flawed. It is not a suitable control. The data don’t show anything useful.”
“The much broader problem here is the lack of commitment to performing large, national randomized controlled trials,” Gaffney said. “We could have done it for convalescent plasma. Instead, we did the EAP. I understand why people wanted it, but now we don’t know [if convalescent plasma works]. We have a question mark instead of a period.”
Undermining Trust in FDA?
Critics have charged that serious mistakes like Hahn’s misstatement could undermine FDA’s credibility, especially as it faces challenging decisions about potentially approving a vaccine this fall.
“This is playing out in the context of a hyper-politicized moment,” Gaffney said. “It behooves everyone to be extremely cautious in speaking about these things to avoid the appearance of politicization.”
On CBS This Morning on Tuesday, Hahn addressed concerns about politicization by offering reassurance to the “American people that this decision was made based upon sound science and data.”
In response to questions about the timing of the EUA announcement — it came just a day after President Donald Trump tweeted allegations that the “deep state” was holding back access to COVID-19 treatments with Hahn’s Twitter handle cited, and a day before the Republican National Convention got underway — Hahn said the agency had been working on the application for 3 or 4 weeks and was waiting on additional validation data, which were received at the end of last week and over the weekend.
“We’re going to continue to get data and as we’ve done with any other authorization, we will update that decision as new data come,” Hahn said on the news program. His agency initially issued an EUA for hydroxychloroquine, for instance, but later revoked it when the negative randomized trial data became available.
Lack of Access to FDA’s Data Review
Whether the public will ever see the full convalescent plasma data underlying the EUA is another matter. The “Clinical Memorandum” issued as the evidence behind the FDA’s decision glossed over the statistical analysis conducted by the agency; in particular, it made no mention of the 35% relative reduction in deaths.
Another problem with that is the 35% figure’s source isn’t fully clear. Although the EAP preprint manuscript is the most obvious source, Gaffney noted that HHS Secretary Alex Azar said it referred to a subgroup of patients under age 80 who were not on a ventilator. That is not found in the publicly available data. He also pointed to a tweet by FDA spokesperson Emily Miller that contains an agency slide showing a 37% reduction in mortality for non-intubated patients age 80 or under treated within 72 hours who got high-titer convalescent plasma, compared with low-titer product. Neither of those figures is reflected in the EAP manuscript.
The FDA did not return a request by MedPage Today for the full summary of data reviewed by FDA and any independent statistical analysis done by the agency.
Shmuel Shoham, MD, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said during a press briefing organized by the Infectious Diseases Society of America that “enormous amounts of data have been generated” from the EAP, in which more than 70,000 patients have been treated.
“Some data have been reported in articles and at meetings, but that’s only part of what the FDA — this is their program — has access to,” he said. “The stuff in the public domain is only a fraction of the data they have collected.”
Shoham is on the scientific advisory board of the EAP and is involved in two convalescent plasma clinical trials at Johns Hopkins.
Gaffney said Mayo researchers and FDA reviewers have noted that physicians were blinded to the dose of antibody given in plasma infusions, which he described as a “pseudo-randomization effect. We could use that to make more causal inferences about the effectiveness of antibody titers.”
However, he said there were some significant differences between those who received high-titer versus low-titer antibody, including differences in P-to-F ratio (a measure of inhaled oxygen to blood oxygen) and in those with five or more severe risk factors, suggesting the low-titer group was sicker to begin with than the high-titer group.
Also, patients in the EAP received a variety of other treatments: about half got steroids and 40% were given remdesivir.
“This is why we do randomized controlled trials,” Gaffney said. “Without them it’s very difficult to ensure that the effect you see is the result of the drug, and not the result of patient characteristics.”
Is an Answer Forthcoming?
Several randomized controlled trials of convalescent plasma are underway in the U.S., but the big concern is that wider access to convalescent plasma will limit enrollment. Will clinicians recommend that their patients enroll in a trial in which they might receive placebo? Will patients agree?
For the Hopkins studies, the prevention trial has enrolled 25 people out of a goal of 500, and its outpatient trial has enrolled 50 people of its 600-patient goal.
Liise-anne Pirofski, MD, of Montefiore Medical Center in New York, started a study at the end of April, looking to enroll 300 people. She said the team enrolled the first 150 people quickly, but “then the pandemic began to wane in New York.” With subsequent funding from the NIH, the trial has managed to enroll 190 patients, and has now expanded to four additional sites: New York University, Yale, the University of Miami, and the University of Texas Houston.
Clifton Callaway, MD, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and lead investigator on the C3PO trial looking at outpatient convalescent plasma, said he hopes the EUA doesn’t discourage participation.
“To the contrary, I believe it should reassure persons considering participation that the FDA feels that convalescent plasma is safe and potentially useful and that the FDA specifically comments: ‘Current data suggest the largest clinical benefit is associated with high-titer units of CCP administered early in the course of disease.’ Giving high-titer convalescent plasma earlier (before you are sick enough to be in the hospital) is exactly what C3PO is testing.”
In addition to determining whether earlier or prophylactic treatment works, Shoham said other unanswered questions include identifying whether other components in plasma are useful therapies and whether low-titer plasma can work at all.
“What everyone agrees on is that the gaps in knowledge that exist can best be addressed by high-quality randomized controlled trials,” he said.
Pirofski said the science and data should be the focus, “rather than the decision and what drove the decision…. I don’t think anyone knows what drove that decision other than the people in that room. Hopefully they know.”
The order to reroute CDC hospitalization figures raised accuracy concerns. But that’s just one of the problems with how the country collects health data.
TWO WEEKS AGO, the Department of Health and Human Services stripped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of control of national data on Covid-19 infections in hospitalized patients. Instead of sending the data to the CDC’s public National Healthcare Safety Network (NHSN), the department ordered hospitals to send it to a new data system, run for the agency by a little-known firm in Tennessee.
The change took effect immediately. First, the hospitalization data collected up until July 13 vanished from the CDC’s site. One day later, it was republished—but topped by a note that the NHSN Covid-19 dashboard would no longer be updated.
Fury over the move was immediate. All the major organizations that represent US public health professionals objected vociferously. A quickly written protest letter addressed to Vice President Mike Pence, HHS secretary Alex Azar, and Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force, garnered signatures from more than 100 health associations and research groups. The reactions made visible the groups’ concerns that data could be lost or duplicated, and underlined their continual worry that the CDC is being undercut and sidelined. But it had no other effect. The new HHS portal, called HHS Protect, is up and running.
Behind the crisis lies a difficult reality: Covid-19 data in the US—in fact, almost all public health data—is chaotic: not one pipe, but a tangle. If the nation had a single, seamless system for collecting, storing, and analyzing health data, HHS and the Coronavirus Task Force would have had a much harder time prying the CDC’s Covid-19 data loose. Not having a comprehensive system made the HHS move possible, and however well or badly the department handles the data it will now receive, the lack of a comprehensive data system is harming the US coronavirus response.
“Every health system, every public health department, every jurisdiction really has their own ways of going about things,” says Caitlin Rivers, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “It’s very difficult to get an accurate and timely and geographically resolved picture of what’s happening in the US, because there’s such a jumble of data.”
Data systems are wonky objects, so it may help to step back and explain a little history. First, there’s a reason why hospitalization data is important: Knowing whether the demand for beds is rising or falling can help illuminate how hard-hit any area is, and whether reopening in that region is safe.
Second, what the NHSN does is important too. It’s a 15-year-old database, organized in 2005 out of several streams of information that were already flowing to the CDC, which receives data from hospitals and other health care facilities about anything that affects the occurrence of infections once someone is admitted. That includes rates of pneumonia from use of ventilators, infections after surgery, and urinary tract infections from catheters, for instance—but also statistics about usage of antibiotics, adherence to hand hygiene, complications from dialysis, occurrence of the ravaging intestinal infection C. difficile, and rates of health care workers getting flu shots. Broadly, it assembles a portrait of the safety of hospitals, nursing homes, and chronic care institutions in the US, and it shares that data with researchers and with other statistical dashboards published by other HHS agencies such as the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Because NHSN only collects institutional data, and Covid-19 infections occur both inside institutions such as nursing homes and hospitals, and in the outside world, HHS officials claimed the database was a bad fit for the coronavirus pandemic. But people who have worked with it argue that since the network had already devised channels for receiving all that data from health care systems, it ought to continue to do so—especially since that data isn’t easy to abstract.
“If you are lucky enough to work in a large health care system that has a sophisticated electronic medical record, then possibly you can push one button and have all the data flow up to NHSN,” says Angela Vassallo, an epidemiologist who formerly worked at HHS and is now chief clinical adviser to the infection-prevention firm Covid Smart. “But that’s a rare experience. Most hospitals have an infection preventionist, usually an entire team, responsible for transferring that data by hand.”
There lies the core problem. Despite big efforts back during the Obama administration to funnel all US health care data into one large-bore pipeline, what exists now resembles what you’d find behind the walls of an old house: pipes going everywhere, patched at improbable angles, some of them leaky, and some of them dead ends. To take some examples from the coronavirus response: Covid-19 hospital admissions were measured by the NHSN (before HHS intervened), but cases coming to emergency departments were reported in a different database, and test results were reported first to local or state health departments, and then sent up to the CDC.
Covid-19 data in particular has been so messy that volunteer efforts have sprung up to fix it. These include the COVID Tracking Project—compiled from multiple sources and currently the most comprehensive set of statistics, used by media organizations and apparently by the White House—and Covid Exit Strategy, which uses data from the COVID Tracking Project and the CDC.
Last week, the American Public Health Association, the Johns Hopkins Center, and Resolve to Save Lives, a nonprofit led by former CDC director Tom Frieden, released a comprehensive report on Covid-19 data collection. Pulling no punches, they called the current situation an “information catastrophe.”
The US, they found, does not have national-, state-, county-, or city-level standards for Covid-19 data. Every state maintains some form of coronavirus dashboard (and some have several), but every dashboard is different; no two states present the same data categories, nor visualize them the same way. The data presented by states is “inconsistent, incomplete, and inaccessible,” the group found: Out of 15 key pieces of data that each state should be presenting—things such as new confirmed and probable cases, new tests performed, and percentage of tests that are positive—only 38 percent of the indicators are reported in some way, with limitations, and 60 percent are not reported at all.
“This is not the fault of the states—there was no federal leadership,” Frieden emphasized in an interview with WIRED. “And this is legitimately difficult. But it’s not impossible. It just requires commitment.”
But the problem of incomplete, messy data is older and deeper than this pandemic. Four scholars from the health-policy think tank the Commonwealth Fund called out the broader problem just last week in an essay in The New England Journal of Medicine, naming health data as one of four interlocking health care crises exposed by Covid-19. (The others were reliance on employer-provided health care, financial losses in rural and primary-care practices, and the effect of the pandemic on racial and ethinic minorities.)
“There is no national public health information system—electronic or otherwise—that enables authorities to identify regional variation in the demand for, and supply of, resources critical to managing Covid-19,” they wrote. The fix they recommended: a national public health information system that would record diagnoses in real time, monitor the materials hospitals need, and link hospitals and outpatient care, state and local health departments, and laboratories and manufacturers to maintain real-time reporting on disease occurrence, preventive measures, and equipment production.
They are not the first to say this is needed. In February, 2019, the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists launched a campaign to get Congress to appropriate $1 billion in new federal funding over 10 years specifically to improve data flows. “The nation’s public health data systems are antiquated, rely on obsolete surveillance methods, and are in dire need of security upgrades,” the group wrote in its launch statement. “Sluggish, manual processes—paper records, spreadsheets, faxes, and phone calls—still in widespread use, have consequences, most notably delayed detection and response to public health threats.”
Defenders of the HHS decision to switch data away from the CDC say that improving problems like that is what the department was aiming for. (“The CDC’s old hospital data-gathering operation once worked well monitoring hospital information across the country, but it’s an inadequate system today,” HHS assistant secretary for public affairs Michael Caputo told CNN.) If that’s an accurate claim, during a global pandemic is a challenging time to do it.
“We were opposed to this, because trying to do this in the middle of a disaster is not the time,” says Georges Benjamin, a physician and executive director of the American Public Health Association, which was a signatory to the letter protesting moving data from the NHSN. “It was just clearly done without a lot of foresight. I don’t think they understand the way data moves into and through the system.”
The past week has shown how correct that concern was. Immediately after the switch, according to CNBC, states were blacked out from receiving data on their own hospitals, because the hospitals were not able to manage the changeover from the CDC to the HHS system. On Tuesday, Ryan Panchadsaram, cofounder of Covid Exit Strategy and former deputy chief technology officer for the US, highlighted on Twitter that data on the HHS dashboard, advertised as updating daily, was five days old. And Tuesday night, the COVID Tracking Project staff warned in a long analysis: “Hospitalization data from states that was highly stable a few weeks ago is currently fragmented, and appears to be a significant undercount.”
When the Covid-19 crisis is over, as everyone hopes it will be someday, the US will still have to wrestle with the questions it raised. One of those will be how the richest country on the planet, with some of the best clinical care in the world, was content with a health information system that left it so uninformed about a disease affecting so many of its citizens. The answer could involve tearing the public-health data system down and building it again from scratch.
“This is a deeply entrenched problem, where there is no single person who has not done their job,” Rivers says. “Our systems are old. They were not updated. We haven’t invested in them. If you’re trying to imagine a system where everyone reports the same information in the same way and we can push a button and have all the information we might want, that will take a complete overhaul of what we have.”
The image of scientists standing beside governors, mayors or the president has become common during the pandemic. Even the most cynical politician knows this public health emergency cannot be properly addressed without relying on the scientific knowledge possessed by these experts.
Yet, ultimately, U.S. government health experts have limited power. They work at the discretion of the White House, leaving their guidance subject to the whims of politicians and them less able to take urgent action to contain the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines only to later revise them after the White House intervened. The administration has also undermined its top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, over his blunt warnings that the pandemic is getting worse – a view that contradicts White House talking points.
And most recently, the White House stripped the CDC of control of coronavirus data, alarming health experts who fear it will be politicized or withheld.
In the realm of monetary policy, however, there is an agency with experts trusted to make decisions on their own in the best interests of the U.S. economy: the Federal Reserve. As I describe in my recent book, “Stewards of the Market,” the Fed’s independence allowed it to take politically risky actions that helped rescue the economy during the financial crisis of 2008.
That’s why I believe we should give the CDC the same type of authority as the Fed so that it can effectively guide the public through health emergencies without fear of running afoul of politicians.
The paradox of expertise
There is a paradox inherent in the relationship between political leaders and technical experts in government.
Experts have the training and skill to apply scientific knowledge in complex biological and economic systems, yet democratically elected political leaders may overrule or ignore their advice for ill or good.
This happened in May when the CDC, the federal agency charged with controlling the spread of disease, removed advice regarding the dangers of singing in church choirs from its website. It did not do so because of new evidence. Rather, it was because of political pressure from the White House to water down the guidance for religious groups.
The ability of elected leaders to ignore scientists – or the scientists’ acquiescence to policies they believe are detrimental to public welfare – is facilitated by many politicians’ penchant for confident assertion of knowledge and the scientist’s trained reluctance to do so.
Experts with independence
Given these constraints on technical expertise, the performance of the Fed in the financial crisis of 2008 offers an informative example that may be usefully applied to the CDC today.
The Federal Reserve is not an executive agency under the president, though it is chartered and overseen by Congress. It was created in 1913 to provide economic stability, and its powers have expanded to guard against both depression and crippling inflation.
At its founding, the structure of the Fed was a political compromise designed make it independent within the government in order to de-politicize its economic policy decisions. Today its decisions are made by a seven-member board of governors and a 12-member Federal Open Market Committee. The members, almost all Ph.D. economists, have had careers in academia, business and government. They come together to analyze economic data, develop a common understanding of what they believe is happening and create policy that matches their shared analysis. This group policymaking is optimal when circumstances are highly uncertain, such as in 2008 when the global financial system was melting down.
The Fed was the lead actor in preventing the system’s collapse and spent several trillion dollars buying risky financial assets and lending to foreign central banks – decisions that were pivotal in calming financial markets but would have been much harder or may not have happened at all without its independent authority.
Putting experts at the wheel
A health crisis needs trusted experts to guide decision-making no less than an economic one does. This suggests the CDC or some re-imagined version of it should be made into an independent agency.
Like the Fed, the CDC is run by technical experts who are often among the best minds in their fields. Like the Fed, the CDC is responsible for both analysis and crisis response. Like the Fed, the domain of the CDC is prone to politicization that may interfere with rational response. And like the Fed, the CDC is responsible for decisions that affect fundamental aspects of the quality of life in the United States.
Were the CDC independent right now, we would likely see a centralized crisis management effort that relies on the best science, as opposed to the current patchwork approach that has failed to contain the outbreak nationally. We would also likely see stronger and consistent recommendations on masks, social distancing and the safest way to reopen the economy and schools.
Independence will not eliminate the paradox of technical expertise in government. The Fed itself has at times succumbed to political pressure. And Trump would likely try to undermine an independent CDC’s legitimacy if its policies conflicted with his political agenda – as he has tried to do with the central bank.
But independence provides a strong shield that would make it much more likely that when political calculations are at odds with science, science wins.
The Trump administration told hospitals to stop reporting data to the CDC, and report it to HHS instead. Vice President Mike Pence said the information would continue to be released publicly. It hasn’t worked out as promised.
In mid-July, the Trump administration instructed hospitals to change the way they reported data on their coronavirus patients, promising the new approach would provide better, more up-to-the-minute information about the virus’s toll and allow resources and supplies to be quickly dispatched across the country.
Instead, the move has created widespread confusion, leaving some states in the dark about their hospitals’ remaining bed and intensive care capacity and, at least temporarily, removing this information from public view. As a result, it has been unclear how many people are in hospitals being treated for COVID-19 at a time when the number of infected patients nationally has been soaring.
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have been seen as a key metric of both the coronavirus’s toll and the health care system’s ability to deal with it.
Since early in the pandemic, hospitals had been reporting data on COVID-19 patients to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention through its National Healthcare Safety Network, which traditionally tracks hospital-acquired infections.
In a memo dated July 10, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told hospitals to abruptly change course — to stop reporting their data to the CDC and instead to submit it to HHS through a new portal run by a company called TeleTracking. The change took effect within days. Vice President Mike Pence said the administration would continue releasing the data publicly, as the CDC had done.
Almost immediately, the CDC pulled its historical data offline, only to repost it under pressure a couple days later. Meanwhile the website for the administration’s new portal promised to update numbers on a daily basis, but, as of Friday morning, the site hadn’t been updated since July 23. (HHS is posting some data daily on a different federal website but not representative estimates for each state.)
“The most pernicious portion of it is that at the state level and at the regional level we lost our situational awareness,” said Dave Dillon, spokesman for the Missouri Hospital Association. “At the end of this, we may have a fantastic data product out of HHS. I will not beat them up for trying to do something positive about the data, but the rollout of this has been absolutely a catastrophe.”
The Missouri Hospital Association had taken the daily data submitted by its hospitals to the CDC and created a state dashboard. The transition knocked that offline. The dashboard came back online this week, but Dillon said in a follow-up email, “the data is only as good as our ability to know that everyone is reporting the same data, in the correct way, for tracking and comparison purposes at the state level.”
Other states, including Idaho and South Carolina, also experienced temporary information blackouts. And The COVID Tracking Project, which has been following the pandemic’s toll across the country based on state data, noted issues with its figures. “These problems mean that our hospitalization data — a crucial metric of the COVID-19 pandemic — is, for now, unreliable, and likely an undercount. We do not think that either the state-level hospitalization data or the new federal data is reliable in isolation,” according to a blog post Tuesday on the group’s website.
Making matters more complicated, the administration has changed the information that it is requiring hospitals to report, adding many elements, such as the age range of admitted COVID-19 patients, and removing others. As of this week, for instance, HHS told hospitals to stop reporting the total number of deaths they’ve had since Jan. 1, the total number of COVID-19 deaths and the total number of COVID-19 admissions. (Hospitals still report daily figures, just not historical ones.)
“Massachusetts hospitals are continuing to navigate the dramatic increase of daily data requirements,” the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association said in a newsletter on Monday. “MHA and other state health officials continue to raise concerns about the administrative burden and questionable usefulness of some of the data.”
“Hospitals across the country were given little time to adjust to the unnecessary and seismic changes put forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which fundamentally shift both the volume of data and the platforms through which data is submitted,” the association’s CEO, Steve Walsh, said in the newsletter.
A number of state websites also noted problems with hospital data. For days, the Texas Department of State Health Services included a note on its dashboard that it was “reporting incomplete hospitalization numbers … due to a transition in reporting to comply with new federal requirements.” That came just as the state was experiencing a peak in COVID-19 hospitalizations.
California likewise noted problems.
A spokesperson for HHS acknowledged some bumps in the transition but said in an email: “We are pleased with the progress we have made during this transition and the actionable data it is providing. We have had some states and hospital associations report difficulty with the new collection system. When HHS identifies errors in the data submissions, we work directly with the state or hospital association to quickly resolve them.
“Our objective with this new approach is to collaborate with the states and the healthcare system. The goal of full transparency is to acknowledge when we find discrepancies in the data and correct them.”
Last week, HHS noted, 93% of its prioritized list of hospitals, excluding psychiatric, rehabilitation and religious nonmedical facilities, reported data at least once during the week. (The guidance to hospitals asks them to report every day.)
Asked about the lack of timely data on its public website, HHS said it will update the site to “make it clear that the estimates are only updated weekly.” HHS is now posting a date file each day on healthdata.gov with aggregate information on hospitalizations by state.
But unlike the prior releases from CDC, which provided estimates on hospital capacity based on the responses, this file only gives totals for the hospitals that reported data. It’s unclear which hospitals did not report, how large they are, or whether the reported data is representative.
It’s also unclear if it’s accurate. New York state, for instance, reported that fewer than 600 people were currently hospitalized with COVID-19, as of Friday. Federal data released the same day pegged the number of suspected and confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations at around 1,800.
Louisiana says more than 1,500 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. The federal data puts the figure at fewer than 700.
Nationally, The COVID Tracking Project reports that more than 56,000 people were hospitalized around the country with the virus, as of Thursday.
The data released by HHS on Friday puts the figure at more than 70,000.
NPR reported this week that it had found irregularities in the process used by the Trump administration to award the contract to manage the hospital data. Among other things, HHS directly contacted TeleTracking about the contract and the agency used a process that is more often used for innovative scientific research, NPR reported.
An HHS spokesperson told NPR that the contract process it used is a “common mechanism … for areas of research interest,” and said that the system used by the CDC was “fraught with challenges.”
Ryan Panchadsaram, co-founder of the tracking website CovidExitStrategy.org, has been critical of the problems created by the hospital data changeover.
“Without real-time accurate monitoring, you can’t make quick and fast and accurate decisions in a crisis,” he said in an interview. “This is just so important. This indicator that’s gone shows how the health system in a state is doing.”
Dillon of the Missouri Hospital Association said the administration could have handled this differently. For big technology projects, he noted, there is often a well-publicized transition with information sessions, an educational program and, perhaps, running the old system and the new one in parallel.
This “was extremely abrupt,” he said. “That is not akin to anything you would expect from HHS about how you would implement a program.”