CMS' New Chief Data Officer Part of Transparency Fix

Amid last week's news that CMS had miscalculated the number of enrollees under the Affordable Care Act was a quieter announcement that the agency had appointed a chief data office to improve transparency, among other tasks.

Almost lost in the news that the HHS had miscalculated the number of new enrollees under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was last week’s simultaneous news that CMS had created the post of chief data officer, for the purpose of “overseeing improvements in data collection and dissemination as the agency strives to be more transparent.”

CMS announced the move in a press release, which also stated that the first occupant will be Niall Brennan. CMS is also creating the Office of Enterprise Data and Analytics, which the statement says will “help CMS better harness its vast data resources to guide decision-making and develop frameworks promoting appropriate external access to and use of data to drive higher quality, patient-centered care at a lower cost.”

As the statement noted, CMS already collects a lot of numbers, most of which are not typically in dispute: numbers on Medicare, Medicaid, and CHIP programs. Numbers increasingly drive decisions on reimbursement under the ACA, as the creation of accountable care organizations (ACOs) has revolutionized models for healthcare delivery, from volume- to value-based arrangements. CMS has created 33 value-based quality measure that are used to drive ACO reimbursement.

It’s CMS’ ability to measure how many people are signing up for coverage that has caused the agency headaches. CMS included 400,000 enrollees in stand-alone dental plans in the totals, raising the count from 6.7 million to 7.3 million—or just under Congressional Budget Office estimates to just pass the mark, a politically significant mistake that was not lost on critics.

There was no explicit mention of the gaffe that caused HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell to issue a statement calling the mistake “unacceptable” or issue a memo calling on each agency to hold meetings on improving transparency, but the connection between the creating of a chief data officer and the timing of the news were hard to miss. The new position will include jurisdiction over counting the number of enrollees, according to the statement.

“It’s clear how much data transparency will help the country improve outcomes, control costs and aid consumer decision making,” said CMS Principal Deputy Administrator Andy Slavitt. “This appointment signals to the industry that there is no turning back from the health care data agenda. Niall Brennan will help make sure CMS leads the way.”

Besides monitoring progress on ACA enrollment and demographics within those totals, the statement said the new office will have broad responsibilities for data creation and monitoring that will track key metrics for hospital readmissions, fraud, and other items key to ACOs, as well as measurements key for state Medicaid agencies.