HHS said to reverse course, with hospitals to report COVID-19 data to CDC again

By | August 21, 2020

[Update: This piece has been updated to include a response from HHS.]

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reportedly said Thursday that it would return responsibility for collecting data from hospitals about COVID-19 patients back to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but HHS later said the process would not change. 

Dr. Deborah Birx told hospital executives and government officials that the HHS system was “solely an interim system” while the CDC worked to build a new data system “so [reporting] can be moved back to the CDC,” according to The Wall Street Journal

The CDC will work with the U.S. Digital Service to “build a modernized automation process” for hospital data, an HHS official told The Journal. The modernized automation process will still send data to HHS Protect, where all agencies who need it, including the CDC, will have access to it. 

HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo denied the reports Thursday afternoon, telling Healthcare IT News that the process for data reporting “has not and is not changing.”

The WSJ report comes roughly a month after the initial switch, which triggered concerns from public health advocates and accounts from hospital associations of “chaos” at facilities. Although the process had gotten smoother for some by this week, others told Healthcare IT News that they were still frustrated “by the lack of coordination between state and federal agencies.”

Maine Hospital Association Director of Communications Becky Schnur said she was unsure whether the reported change would solve the lingering issues. 

“It’s too soon to tell at this point, but the announcement is troubling. More changes to reporting processes in the immediate future are not welcome,” she told Healthcare IT News. 

WHY IT MATTERS

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After the initial announcement, the American Hospital Association advised its members to comply with the directive, noting that the data would be used to determine distribution of the COVID-19 medication remdesivir. 

During a press call with HHS in July, the agency said that a reason for the initial change was to allow the CDC to put more resources toward tracking nursing home data through the National Healthcare Safety Network. 

It said that the change had been made in conjunction with the CDC – which CDC Director Robert Redfield later seemed to dispute, telling a House subcommittee that his agency hadn’t been involved with the final decision. 

Lawmakers also raised concerns in July about TeleTracking, the data firm tasked with managing the new system.

In the wake of the change, analysts noted discrepancies between the data being reported by the states and by HHS, and the infrequent updates published to the HHS tracking portal. As of Thursday, the portal had last been updated on August 18.

In addition to hospitals’ headaches around the new reporting process, some associations also flagged apparent errors in public-facing information. 

Last week, HHS Chief Information Officer Jose Arrieta announced his resignation, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. 

THE LARGER TREND

The WSJ report follows continued pushback from stakeholders and elected officials, including from a group of more than 100 last month, who asked Vice President Mike Pence and Birx, along with HHS Secretary Alex Azar, to reverse the policy.

Still, questions remain about the best ways to enable information-sharing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The clear need for tracking has conflicted with technological capacity: Public health agencies and systems often rely on manual processes to submit data.

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ON THE RECORD

“We know that asking hospitals to annually enter information every day has to be an interim process to reduce the burden placed on hospitals,” said an HHS spokesperson in a statement to The Journal.

Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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