From the largest global meat producer to a major gas pipeline company, cyberattacks have been on the rise everywhere—and with copious amounts of valuable patient data, healthcare organizations have become a prime target.
The graphic above outlines the recent wave of data attacks plaguing the sector. Healthcare data breaches reached an all-time high in 2020, and hacking is now the most common type of breach, tripling from 2018 to 2020. This year is already on pace to break last year’s record, with nearly a third more data breaches during the first half of the year, compared to the same period last year.
Recovering from ransomware attacks is expensive for any business, but healthcare organizations have the highest average recovery costs, driven by the “life and death” nature of healthcare data, and need to quickly restore patient records. A single healthcare record can command up to $250 on the black market, 50 times as much as a credit card, the next highest-value record. Healthcare organizations are also slower to identify and contain data breaches, further driving up recovery costs.
A new report from Fitch Ratings finds cyberattacks may soon threaten hospitals’ bottom lines, especially if they affect a hospital’s ability to bill patients when systems become locked or financial records are compromised. The rise in healthcare hacking is shining a light on many health systems’ lax cybersecurity systems, and use of outdated technology.
And as virtual delivery solutions expand, health systems must double down on performing continuous risk assessments to keep valuable data assets safe and avoid disruptions to care delivery.
Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more.
It’s not often that the American Hospital Association—known for fun lobbying tricks like hiring consultants to create studies showing the benefits of hospital mergers—directly goes after another consolidation in the industry.
But when the AHA caught wind of UnitedHealth Group subsidiary Optum’s plans, announced in January 2021, to acquire data analytics firm Change Healthcare, they offered up some fiery language in a letter to the Justice Department. “The acquisition … will concentrate an immense volume of competitively sensitive data in the hands of the most powerful health insurance company in the United States, with substantial clinical provider and health insurance assets, and ultimately removes a neutral intermediary.”
If permitted to go through, Optum’s acquisition of Change would fundamentally alter both the health data landscape and the balance of power in American health care. UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S., would have access to all of its competitors’ business secrets. It would be able to self-preference its own doctors. It would be able to discriminate, racially and geographically, against different groups seeking insurance. None of this will improve public health; all of it will improve the profits of Optum and its corporate parent.
Despite the high stakes, Optum has been successful in keeping this acquisition out of the public eye.Part of this PR success is because few health care players want to openly oppose an entity as large and powerful as UnitedHealth. But perhaps an even larger part is that few fully understand what this acquisition will mean for doctors, patients, and the health care system at large.
If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care.
UnitedHealth is the largest health care entity in the U.S., using several metrics. United Healthcare (the insurance arm) is the largest health insurer in the United States, with over 70 million members, 6,500 hospitals, and 1.4 million physicians and other providers. Optum, a separate subsidiary, provides data analytics and infrastructure, a pharmacy benefit manager called OptumRx, a bank providing patient loans called Optum Bank, and more. Through Optum, UnitedHealth also controls more than 50,000 affiliated physicians, the largest collection of physicians in the country.
While UnitedHealth as a whole has earned a reputation for throwing its weight around the industry, Optum has emerged in recent years as UnitedHealth’s aggressive acquisition arm. Acquisitions of entities as varied as DaVita’s dialysis physicians, MedExpress urgent care, and Advisory Board Company’s consultants have already changed the health care landscape. As Optum gobbles up competitors, customers, and suppliers, it has turned into UnitedHealth’s cash cow, bringing in more than 50 percent of the entity’s annual revenue.
On a recent podcast, Chas Roades and Dr. Lisa Bielamowicz of Gist Healthcare described Optum in a way that sounds eerily similar to a single-payer health care system. “If you think about what Optum is assembling, they are pulling together now the nation’s largest employers of docs, owners of one of the country’s largest ambulatory surgery center chains, the nation’s largest operator of urgent care clinics,” said Bielamowicz. With 98 million customers in 2020, OptumHealth, just one branch of Optum’s services, had eyes on roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population. Optum is, Roades noted, “increasingly the thing that ate American health care.”
Optum has not been shy about its desire to eventually assemble all aspects of a single-payer system under its own roof. “The reason it’s been so hard to make health care and the health-care system work better in the United States is because it’s rare to have patients, providers—especially doctors—payers, and data, all brought together under an organization,” OptumHealth CEO Wyatt Decker told Bloomberg. “That’s the rare combination that we offer. That’s truly a differentiator in the marketplace.” The CEO of UnitedHealth, Andrew Witty, has also expressed the corporation’s goal of “wir[ing] together” all of UnitedHealth’s assets.
Controlling Change Healthcare would get UnitedHealth one step closer to creating their private single-payer system. That’s why UnitedHealth is offering up $13 billion, a 41 percent premium on the public valuation of Change. But here’s why that premium may be worth every penny.
Change Healthcare is Optum’s leading competitor in pre-payment claims integrity; functionally, a middleman service that allows insurers to process provider claims (the receipts from each patient visit) and address any mistakes. To clarify what that looks like in practice, imagine a patient goes to an in-network doctor for an appointment. The doctor performs necessary procedures and uses standardized codes to denote each when filing a claim for reimbursement from the patient’s insurance coverage. The insurer then hires a reviewing service—this is where Change comes in—to check these codes for accuracy. If errors are found in the coded claims, such as accidental duplications or more deliberate up-coding (when a doctor intentionally makes a patient seem sicker than they are), Change will flag them, saving the insurer money.
The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others.
To accurately review the coded claims, Change’s technicians have access to all of their clients’ coverage information, provider claims data, and the negotiated rates that each insurer pays.
Change also provides other services, including handling the actual payments from insurers to physicians, reimbursing for services rendered. In this role, Change has access to all of the data that flows between physicians and insurers and between pharmacies and insurers—both of which give insurers leverage when negotiating contracts. Insurers often send additional suggestions to Change as well; essentially their commercial secrets on how the insurer is uniquely saving money. Acquiring Change could allow Optum to see all of this.
Change’s scale (and its independence from payers) has been a selling point; just in the last few months of 2020, the corporation signed multiple contracts with the largest payers in the country.
Optum is not an independent entity; as mentioned above, it’s owned by the largest insurer in the U.S. So, when insurers are choosing between the only two claims editors that can perform at scale and in real time, there is a clear incentive to use Change, the independent reviewer, over Optum, a direct competitor.
If regulators allow the acquisition to take place, Optum will suddenly have access to some of the most secret data in health care. In other words, if the acquisition proceeds and Change is owned by UnitedHealth, the largest health care corporation in the U.S. will own the ability to peek into the book of business for every insurer in the country.
Although UnitedHealth and Optum claim to be separate entities with firewalls that safeguard against anti-competitive information sharing, the porosity of the firewall is an open question. As the AHA pointed out in their letter to the DOJ, “[UnitedHealth] has never demonstrated that the firewalls are sufficiently robust to prevent sensitive and strategic information sharing.”
In some cases, this “firewall” would mean asking Optum employees to forget their work for UnitedHealth’s competitors when they turn to work on implementing changes for UnitedHealth. It is unlikely to work. And that is almost certainly Optum’s intention.
The most obvious potential outcome of the merger is that the flow of data will allow Optum/UnitedHealth to preference their own entities and physicians above others. This means that doctors (and someday, perhaps, hospitals) owned by the corporation will get better rates, funded by increased premiums on patients. Optum drugs might seem cheaper, Optum care better covered. Meanwhile, health care costs will continue to rise as UnitedHealth fuels executive salaries and stock buybacks.
UnitedHealth has already been accused of self-preferencing. A large group of anesthesiologists filed suit in two states last week, accusing the company of using perks to steer surgeons into using service providers within its networks.
Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past.
Beyond this obvious risk, the data alterations caused by the Change acquisition could worsen existing discrimination and medical racism. Prior to the acquisition, Change launched a geo-demographic analytics unit. Now, UnitedHealth will have access to that data, even as it sells insurance to different demographic categories and geographic areas.
Even if UnitedHealth doesn’t purposely use data to discriminate, the corporation has been unable to correct for racially biased data in the past, and there’s no reason to expect it to do so in the future. A study published in 2019 found that Optum used a racially biased algorithm that could have led to undertreating Black patients. This is a problem for all algorithms. As data scientist Cathy O’Neil told 52 Insights, “if you have a historically biased data set and you trained a new algorithm to use that data set, it would just pick up the patterns.” But Optum’s size and centrality in American health care would give any racially biased algorithms an outsized impact. And antitrust lawyer Maurice Stucke noted in an interview that using racially biased data could be financially lucrative. “With this data, you can get people to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise purchase at the highest price they are willing to pay … when there are often fewer options in their community, the poor are often charged a higher price.”
The fragmentation of American health care has kept Big Data from being fully harnessed as it is in other industries, like online commerce. But Optum’s acquisition of Change heralds the end of that status quo and the emergence of a new “Big Tech” of health care. With the Change data, Optum/UnitedHealth will own the data, providers, and the network through which people receive care. It’s not a stretch to see an analogy to Amazon, and how that corporation uses data from its platform to undercut third parties while keeping all its consumers in a panopticon of data.
The next step is up to the Department of Justice, which has jurisdiction over the acquisition (through an informal agreement, the DOJ monitors health insurance and other industries, while the FTC handles hospital mergers, pharmaceuticals, and more). The longer the review takes, the more likely it is that the public starts to realize that, as Dartmouth health policy professor Dr. Elliott Fisher said, “the harms are likely to outweigh the benefits.”
There are signs that the DOJ knows that to approve this acquisition is to approve a new era of vertical integration. In a document filed on March 24, Change informed the SEC that the DOJ had requested more information and extended its initial 30-day review period. But the stakes are high. If the acquisition is approved, we face a future in which UnitedHealth/Optum is undoubtedly “the thing that ate American health care.”
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Florida has blocked, obscured, delayed, and at times hidden the COVID-19 data used in making big decisions such as reopening schools and businesses.
And with scientists warning Thanksgiving gatherings could cause an explosion of infections, the shortcomings in the state’s viral reporting have yet to be fixed.
While the state has put out an enormous amount of information, some of its actions have raised concerns among researchers that state officials are being less than transparent.
It started even before the pandemic became a daily concern for millions of residents. Nearly 175 patients tested positive for the disease in January and February, evidence the Florida Department of Health collected but never acknowledged or explained. The state fired its nationally praised chief data manager, she says in a whistleblower lawsuit, after she refused to manipulate data to support premature reopening. The state said she was fired for not following orders.
The health department used to publish coronavirus statistics twice a day before changing to once a day, consistently meeting an 11 a.m. daily deadline for releasing new information that scientists, the media and the public could use to follow the pandemic’s latest twists.
But in the past month the department has routinely and inexplicably failed to meet its own deadline by as much as six hours. On one day in October, it published no update at all.
News outlets were forced to sue the state before it would publish information identifying the number of infections and deaths at individual nursing homes.
Throughout it all, the state has kept up with the rapidly spreading virus by publishing daily updates of the numbers of cases, deaths and hospitalizations.
“Florida makes a lot of data available that is a lot of use in tracking the pandemic,” University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi said. “They’re one of the only states, if not the only state, that releases daily case line data (showing age, sex and county for each infected person).”
Dr. Terry Adirim, chairwoman of Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Integrated Biomedical Science, agreed, to a point.
“The good side is they do have daily spreadsheets,” Adirim said. “However, it’s the data that they want to put out.”
The state leaves out crucial information that could help the public better understand who the virus is hurting and where it is spreading, Adirim said.
The department, under state Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, oversees 53? health agencies covering Florida’s 67 counties, such as the one in Palm Beach County headed by Dr. Alina Alonso.
Rivkees was appointed in April 2019. He reports to Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who has supported President Donald Trump’s approach to fighting the coronavirus and pressured local officials to reopen schools and businesses despite a series of spikes indicating rapid spread of the disease.
At several points, the DeSantis administration muzzled local health directors, such as when it told them not to advise school boards on reopening campuses.
DOH Knew Virus Here Since January
The health department’s own coronavirus reports indicated that the pathogen had been infecting Floridians since January, yet health officials never informed the public about it and they did not publicly acknowledge it even after The Palm Beach Post first reported it in May.
In fact, the night before The Post broke the story, the department inexplicably removed from public view the state’s dataset that provided the evidence. Mixed among listings of thousands of cases was evidence that up to 171 people ages 4 to 91 had tested positive for COVID-19 in the months before officials announced in March the disease’s presence in the state.
Were the media reports on the meaning of those 171 cases in error? The state has never said.
No Testing Stats Initially
When positive tests were finally acknowledged in March, all tests had to be confirmed by federal health officials. But Florida health officials refused to even acknowledge how many people in each county had been tested.
State health officials and DeSantis claimed they had to withhold the information to protect patient privacy, but they provided no evidence that stating the number of people tested would reveal personal information.
At the same time, the director of the Hillsborough County branch of the state health department publicly revealed that information to Hillsborough County commissioners.
And during March the state published on a website that wasn’t promoted to the public the ages and genders of those who had been confirmed to be carrying the disease, along with the counties where they claimed residence.
Firing Coronavirus Data Chief
In May, with the media asking about data that revealed the earlier onset of the disease, internal emails show that a department manager ordered the state’s coronavirus data chief to yank the information off the web, even though it had been online for months.
A health department tech supervisor told data manager Rebekah Jones on May 5 to take down the dataset. Jones replied in an email that was the “wrong call,” but complied, only to be ordered an hour later to put it back.
That day, she emailed reporters and researchers following a listserv she created, saying she had been removed from handling coronavirus data because she refused to manipulate datasets to justify DeSantis’ push to begin reopening businesses and public places.
Two weeks later, the health department fired Jones, who in March had created and maintained Florida’s one-stop coronavirus dashboard, which had been viewed by millions of people, and had been praised nationally, including by White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx.
The dashboard allows viewers to explore the total number of coronavirus cases, deaths, tests and other information statewide and by county and across age groups and genders.
DeSantis claimed on May 21 that Jones wanted to upload bad coronavirus data to the state’s website. To further attempt to discredit her, he brought up stalking charges made against her by an ex-lover, stemming from a blog post she wrote, that led to two misdemeanor charges.
Using her technical know-how, Jones launched a competing COVID-19 dashboard website, FloridaCOVIDAction.com in early June. After national media covered Jones’ firing and website launch, people donated more than $200,000 to her through GoFundMe to help pay her bills and maintain the website.
People view her site more than 1 million times a day, she said. The website features the same type of data the state’s dashboard displays, but also includes information not present on the state’s site such as a listing of testing sites and their contact information.
Jones also helped launch TheCOVIDMonitor.com to collect reports of infections in schools across the country.
Jones filed a whistleblower complaint against the state in July, accusing managers of retaliating against her for refusing to change the data to make the coronavirus situation look better.
“The Florida Department of Health needs a data auditor not affiliated with the governor’s office because they cannot be trusted,” Jones said Friday.
Florida Hides Death Details
When coronavirus kills someone, their county’s medical examiner’s office logs their name, age, ethnicity and other information, and sends it to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
During March and April, the department refused requests to release that information to the public, even though medical examiners in Florida always have made it public under state law. Many county medical examiners, acknowledging the role that public information can play in combating a pandemic, released the information without dispute.
But it took legal pressure from news outlets, including The Post, before FDLE agreed to release the records it collected from local medical examiners.
When FDLE finally published the document on May 6, it blacked out or excluded crucial information such as each victim’s name or cause of death.
But FDLE’s attempt to obscure some of that information failed when, upon closer examination, the seemingly redacted details could in fact be read by common computer software.
Outlets such as Gannett, which owns The Post, and The New York Times, extracted the data invisible to the naked eye and reported in detail what the state redacted, such as the details on how each patient died.
Reluctantly Revealing Elder Care Deaths, Hospitalizations
It took a lawsuit against the state filed by the Miami Herald, joined by The Post and other news outlets, before the health department began publishing the names of long-term care facilities with the numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths.
The publication provided the only official source for family members to find out how many people had died of COVID-19 at the long-term care facility housing their loved ones.
While the state agreed to publish the information weekly, it has failed to publish several times and as of Nov. 24 had not updated the information since Nov. 6.
It took more pressure from Florida news outlets to pry from the state government the number of beds in each hospital being occupied by coronavirus patients, a key indicator of the disease’s spread, DeSantis said.
That was one issue where USF’s Salemi publicly criticized Florida.
“They were one of the last three states to release that information,” he said. “That to me is a problem because it is a key indicator.”
Confusion Over Positivity Rate
One metric DeSantis touted to justify his decision in May to begin reopening Florida’s economy was the so-called positivity rate, which is the share of tests reported each day with positive results.
But Florida’s daily figures contrasted sharply with calculations made by Johns Hopkins University, prompting a South Florida Sun-Sentinel examination that showed Florida’s methodology underestimated the positivity rate.
The state counts people who have tested positive only once, but counts every negative test a person receives until they test positive, so that there are many more negative tests for every positive one.
John Hopkins University, on the other hand, calculated Florida’s positivity rate by comparing the number of people testing positive with the total number of people who got tested for the first time.
By John Hopkins’ measure, between 10 and 11 percent of Florida’s tests in October came up positive, compared to the state’s reported rate of between 4 and 5 percent.
Health experts such as those at the World Health Organization have said a state’s positivity rate should stay below 5 percent for 14 days straight before it considers the virus under control and go forward with reopening public places and businesses. It’s also an important measure for travelers, who may be required to quarantine if they enter a state with a high positivity rate.
Withholding Detail on Race, Ethnicity
The Post reported in June that the share of tests taken by Black and Hispanic people and in majority minority ZIP codes were twice as likely to come back positive compared to tests conducted on white people and in majority white ZIP codes.
That was based on a Post analysis of internal state data the health department will not share with the public.
The state publishes bar charts showing general racial breakdowns but not for each infected person.
If it wanted to, Florida’s health department could publish detailed data that would shed light on the infection rates among each race and ethnicity or each age group, as well as which neighborhoods are seeing high rates of contagion.
Researchers have been trying to obtain this data but “the state won’t release the data without (making us) undergo an arduous data use agreement application process with no guarantee of release of the data,” Adirim said. Researchers must read and sign a 26-page, nearly 5,700-word agreement before getting a chance at seeing the raw data.
While Florida publishes the ages, genders and counties of residence for each infected person, “there’s no identification for race or ethnicity, no ZIP code or city of the residence of the patient,” Adirim said. “No line item count of negative test data so it’s hard to do your own calculation of test positivity.”
While Florida doesn’t explain its reasoning, one fear of releasing such information is the risk of identifying patients, particularly in tiny, non-diverse counties.
Confusion Over Lab Results
Florida’s daily report shows how many positive results come from each laboratory statewide. Except when it doesn’t.
The report has shown for months that 100 percent of COVID-19 tests conducted by some labs have come back positive despite those labs saying that shouldn’t be the case.
While the department reported in July that all 410 results from a Lee County lab were positive, a lab spokesman told The Post the lab had conducted roughly 30,000 tests. Other labs expressed the same confusion when informed of the state’s reporting.
The state health department said it would work with labs to fix the error. But even as recently as Tuesday, the state’s daily report showed positive result rates of 100 percent or just under it from some labs, comprising hundreds of tests.
Mistakenly Revealing School Infections
As DeSantis pushed in August for reopening schools and universities for students to attend in-person classes, Florida’s health department published a report showing hundreds of infections could be traced back to schools, before pulling that report from public view.
The health department claimed it published that data by mistake, the Miami Herald reported.
The report showed that COVID-19 had infected nearly 900 students and staffers.
The state resumed school infection reporting in September.
A similar publication of cases at day-care centers appeared online briefly in August only to come down permanently.
After shifting in late April to updating the public just once a day at 11 a.m. instead of twice daily, the state met that deadline on most days until it started to falter in October. Pandemic followers could rely on the predictability.
On Oct. 10, the state published no data at all, not informing the public of a problem until 5 p.m.
The state blamed a private lab for the failure but the next day retracted its statement after the private lab disputed the state’s explanation. No further explanation has been offered.
On Oct. 21, the report came out six hours late.
Since Nov. 3, the 11 a.m. deadline has never been met. Now, late afternoon releases have become the norm.
“They have gotten more sloppy and they have really dragged their feet,” Adirim, the FAU scientist, said.
No spokesperson for the health department has answered questions from The Post to explain the lengthy delays. Alberto Moscoso, the spokesman throughout the pandemic, departed without explanation Nov. 6.
The state’s tardiness can trip up researchers trying to track the pandemic in Florida, Adirim said, because if one misses a late-day update, the department could overwrite it with another update the next morning, eliminating critical information and damaging scientists’ analysis.
Hired Sports Blogger to Analyze Data
As if to show disregard for concerns raised by scientists, the DeSantis administration brought in a new data analyst who bragged online that he is no expert and doesn’t need to be.
Kyle Lamb, an Uber driver and sports blogger, sees his lack of experience as a plus.
“Fact is, I’m not an ‘expert’,” Lamb wrote on a website for a subscribers-only podcast he hosts about the coronavirus. “I also don’t need to be. Experts don’t have all the answers, and we’ve learned that the hard way throughout the entire duration of the global pandemic.”
Much of his coronavirus writings can be found on Twitter, where he has said masks and mandatory quarantines don’t stop the virus’ spread, and that hydroxychloroquine, a drug touted by President Donald Trump but rejected by medical researchers, treats it successfully.
While DeSantis says lockdowns aren’t effective in stopping the spread and refuses to enact a statewide mask mandate, scientists point out that quarantines and masks are extremely effective.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said hydroxychloroquine is unlikely to help and poses greater risk to patients than any potential benefits.
Coronavirus researchers have called Lamb’s views “laughable,” and fellow sports bloggers have said he tends to act like he knows much about a subject in which he knows little, the Miami Herald reported.
DeSantis has yet to explain how and why Lamb was hired, nor has his office released Lamb’s application for the $40,000-a-year job. “We generally do not comment on such entry level hirings,” DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo said Tuesday by email.
It could be worse.
Texas health department workers have to manually enter data they read from paper faxes into the state’s coronavirus tracking system, The Texas Tribune has reported. And unlike Florida, Texas doesn’t require local health officials to report viral data to the state in a uniform way that would make it easier and faster to process and report.
It could be better.
In Wisconsin, health officials report the number of cases and deaths down to the neighborhood level. They also plainly report racial and ethnic disparities, which show the disease hits Hispanic residents hardest.
Still, Salemi worries that Florida’s lack of answers can undermine residents’ faith.
“My whole thing is the communication, the transparency,” Salemi said. “Just let us know what’s going on. That can stop people from assuming the worst. Even if you make a big error people are a lot more forgiving, whereas if the only time you’re communicating is when bad things happen … people start to wonder.”
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.
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.”
Governors join calls for delay of administration plan to shift control from the CDC as Trump administration pledges to make data available to the public.
On the eve of a new coronavirus reporting system this week, data disappeared from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website as hospitals began filing information to a private contractor or their states instead. A day later, an outcry — including from other federal health officials — prompted the Trump administration to reinstate that dashboard and another daily CDC report on the pandemic.
And on Thursday, the nation’s governors joined the chorus of objections over the abruptness of the change to the reporting protocols for hospitals, asking the administration to delay the shift for 30 days. In a statement, the National Governors Association said hospitals need the time to learn a new system, as they continue to deal with this pandemic.
The governors also urged the administration to keep the information publicly available.
The disappearance of the real-time data from the CDC dashboard, which was taken down Tuesday night before resurfacing Thursday morning, was a ripple effect of the administration’s new hospital reporting protocol that took effect Wednesday, according to a federal health official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Without receiving the data firsthand, CDC officials were reluctant to maintain the dashboard — which shows the number of patients with covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and hospital bed capacity — and took it down, the federal health official said. The CDC dashboard states that its information comes directly from hospitals and does not include data submitted to “other entities contracted by or within the federal government.” It also says the dashboard will not be updated after July 14.
The dashboard “was taken down in a fit of pique,” said Michael R. Caputo, the assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. “The idea CDC scientists cannot rely upon their colleagues in the same department for data collection, or any other scientific work, is preposterous.”
This week, the CDC, the government’s premier public health agency whose medical epidemiologists analyze the hospital data, also stopped producing reports about trends in the pandemic that had gone twice a week to states, and six days a week to officials at multiple federal agencies. Adm. Brett Giroir, an assistant secretary in the HHS who oversees coronavirus testing, was unhappy that the CDC hospital report stopped Wednesday and Thursday mornings, according to the federal health official.
Caputo said that the administration’s goal is to maintain transparency, adding that conversations were still taking place between HHS officials and the CDC on a plan to keep producing the dashboard updates and the reports. “We expect a resolution,” he said.
Another HHS spokesperson said the CDC might create a new dashboard, based on a wider set of information.
During a conference call for journalists Thursday on coronavirus testing, Giroir did not acknowledge his displeasure with the reports’ discontinuation. But he said: “Those data are really critical to all of us. … I wake up in the morning and first thing I do, I look at the data. I look at midday. I look at it at night before I go to bed. … We drive the response based on that.”
The CDC site had been one of the few public sources of granular information about hospitalizations and ICU bed capacity. About 3,000 hospitals, or about 60 percent of U.S. hospitals, reported their data to the CDC’s system.
The president of the American Medical Association, Susan R. Bailey, spoke out Thursday on the uncertainties about access to data. “[W]e urge and expect that the scientists at the CDC will continue to have timely, comprehensive access to data critical to inform response efforts,” she said.
Governors, hospital officials and state health officers were given scant notice of the change in the reporting system. Two top administration health officials said in a letter to governors early this week that some hospitals were not complying with the previous protocols, suggesting that states might want to consider bringing in the National Guard to help gather the information. Hospital industry leaders vehemently protested that characterization, as well as the idea that they should be assisted by the National Guard in the midst of a pandemic.
HHS and CDC officials have said the protocol was changed to streamline reporting of data that is used, among other things, to determine the federal allocation of therapeutics, testing supplies and protective gear. Instead of reporting to the long-standing CDC system, hospitals must send data about covid-19 patients and other metrics to a recently hired federal contractor, called TeleTracking, or to their state health departments.
At least some state health departments that have been collecting data for their hospitals and sending it to Washington have already said the switch will make it impossible for them to continue, at least for now. The changed protocol includes a requirement that hospitals send several additional types of data that some state systems are not equipped to handle, state health officials said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health sent a notice to hospitals Tuesday night saying that its platform was not ready to accommodate the new federal requirements, so that hospitals needed to report every day to both the state and to TeleTracking.
Charles L. Gischlar, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health, said the reporting change “is a heavy lift for hospitals.”
The new system “exceeds the capacity of the current statewide system” to which hospitals had been reporting, he said, so the state no longer can send consolidated information to the federal government. As a result, he said in a statement, hospitals must provide data individually to the government.
Get this:Vietnam, a country of 97 million people, has reported zero deaths from only 372 cases of coronavirus.
Theories abound about how they pulled it off. But public health experts chalk it up to swift action by the Vietnamese government, including contact tracing, mass testing, lockdowns, and compulsory wearing of masks.
Here, masks have become a political landmine. And despite President Trump claiming, “We have the greatest testing program anywhere in the world,” some states with surging infections have testing shortages—like Arizona.
But what about contact tracing, the process of calling potentially exposed people and persuading them to quarantine?
“I don’t think we’re doing very well,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, when asked in June about contact tracing nationwide. Most states haven’t even made public how fast or well they’re implementing the process, if at all.
Yet, there are bright spots elsewhere. California allocated 5 percent of staff across 90 state government departments to contact trace. North Carolina’s Wake County trained 110 librarians. In Massachusetts, counties have used state pandemic funds to hire more nurses.
There are three reasons why state and local governments should reassign public employees or hire new staff outright as the country—finally—ramps up contact tracing.
Two, this is a chance to begin to reverse decades of cuts to public health budgets, which have made the worst public health crisis in a century even worse. Almost a quarter of the local public health workforce has been let gosince 2008. Federal spending on nondefense discretionary programs like public health is now at a historic low.
The Trump administration, as expected, is headed in the wrong direction. On Tuesday, it stripped the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of control over coronavirus data. State and local governments must do all they can to right the ship.
And three, contact tracing is an opportunity to chip away at systemic racism. Since World War II, public sector employment has helped equalize American society by offering workers of color stable, well-paid employment. The median wage earned by Black employees is significantly higher in the public sector than in private industries.
Privatizing public work like contact tracing contributes to racial and gender income disparities. Workers at federal call centers operated by Maximus, for example, are predominately women and people of color paid poverty wages as low as $10.80 an hour with unaffordable health care.
If #BlackLivesMatter—as many governors and mayors across the country have proclaimed in recent weeks—then contact tracing should be treated as what it is: a public good.
To catch up to other countries like Vietnam, the U.S. needs to get contact tracing right—and that means doing it with public workers.
Health care was front and center for policymakers and the American public in 2019. An appeals court delivered a decision on the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA’s) individual mandate. In the Democratic primaries, almost all the presidential candidates talked about health reform — some seeking to build on the ACA, others proposing to radically transform the health system. While the ACA remains the law of the land, the current administration continues to take executive actions that erode coverage and other gains. In Congress, we witnessed much legislative activity around surprise bills and drug costs. Meanwhile, far from Washington, D.C., the tech giants in Silicon Valley are crashing the health care party with promised digital transformations. If you missed any of these big developments, here’s a short overview.
1. A decision from appeals court on the future of the ACA: On December 18, an appeals court struck down the ACA’s individual mandate inTexas v. United States, a suit brought by Texas and 17 other states. The court did not rule on the constitutionality of the ACA in its entirety, but sent it back to a lower court. Last December, that court ruled the ACA unconstitutional based on Congress repealing the financial penalty associated with the mandate. The case will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the timing of the SCOTUS ruling is uncertain, leaving the future of the ACA hanging in the balance once again.
3. Rise in uninsured: Gains in coverage under the ACA appear to be stalling. In 2018, an estimated 30.4 million people were uninsured, up from a low of 28.6 million in 2016, according to a recent Commonwealth Fund survey. Nearly half of uninsured adults may have been eligible for subsidized insurance through ACA marketplaces or their state’s expanded Medicaid programs.
4. Changes to Medicaid: States continue to look for ways to alter their Medicaid programs, some seeking to impose requirements for people to work or participate in other qualifying activities to receive coverage. In Arkansas, the only state to implement work requirements, more than 17,000 people lost their Medicaid coverage in just three months. A federal judge has halted the program in Arkansas. Other states are still applying for waivers; none are currently implementing work requirements.
5. Public charge rule: The administration’s public charge rule, which deems legal immigrants who are not yet citizens as “public charges” if they receive government assistance, is discouraging some legal immigrants from using public services like Medicaid. The rule impacts not only immigrants, but their children or other family members who may be citizens. DHS estimated that 77,000 could lose Medicaid or choose not to enroll. The public charge rule may be contributing to a dramatic recent increase in the number of uninsured children in the U.S.
6. Open enrollment numbers: As of the seventh week of open enrollment, 8.3 million people bought health insurance for 2020 on HealthCare.gov, the federal marketplace. Taking into account that Nevada transitioned to a state-based exchange, and Maine and Virginia expanded Medicaid, this is roughly equivalent to 2019 enrollment. In spite of the Trump administration’s support of alternative health plans, like short-term plans with limited coverage, more new people signed up for coverage in 2020 than in the previous year. As we await final numbers — which will be released in March — it is also worth noting that enrollment was extended until December 18 because consumers experienced issues on the website. In addition, state-based marketplaces have not yet reported; many have longer enrollment periods than the federal marketplace.
7. Outrage over surprise bills: Public outrage swelled this year over unexpected medical bills, which may occur when a patient is treated by an out-of-network provider at an in-network facility. These bills can run into tens of thousands of dollars, causing crippling financial problems. Congress is searching for a bipartisan solution but negotiations have been complicated by fierce lobbying from stakeholders, including private equity companies. These firms have bought up undersupplied specialty physician practices and come to rely on surprise bills to swell their revenues.
8. Employer health care coverage becomes more expensive: Roughly half the U.S. population gets health coverage through their employers. While employers and employees share the cost of this coverage, the average annual growth in the combined cost of employees’ contributions to premiums and their deductibles outpaced growth in U.S. median income between 2008 and 2018 in every state. This is because employers are passing along a larger proportion to employees, which means that people are incurring higher out-of-pocket expenses. Sluggish wage growth has also exacerbated the problem.
9. Tech companies continue inroads into health care: We are at the dawn of a new era in which technology companies may become critical players in the health care system. The management and use of health data to add value to common health care services is a prime example. Recently, Ascension, a huge national health system, reached an agreement with Google to store clinical data on 50 million patients in the tech giant’s cloud. But the devil is in the details, and tech companies and their provider clients are finding themselves enmeshed in a fierce debate over privacy, ownership, and control of health data.
10. House passes drug-cost legislation: For the first time, the U.S. House of Representatives passed comprehensive drug-cost-control legislation, H.R. 3. Reflecting the public’s distress over high drug prices, the legislation would require that the government negotiate the price of up to 250 prescription drugs in Medicare, limit drug manufacturers’ ability to annually hike prices in Medicare, and place the first-ever cap on out-of-pocket drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries. This development is historic but unlikely to result in immediate change. Its prospects in the Republican–controlled Senate are dim.