CMS to expand access to data program

Program data had been reserved for use by researchers, academics and journalists. Now developers can get their hands on it.

Shutterstock image (by Maksim Kabakou): digital key in a padlock keyhole, unlocking concept.

(Image: Maksim Kababou / Shutterstock)

The government is opening a trove of health payment and health care data to entrepreneurs and developers for the first time. A vast trove of information on Medicare claims, provider analysis, beneficiaries, chronic conditions, cost and utilization will be available for use in commercial tools.

"We are aiming directly at shaking up health care innovation and setting a new standard for data transparency," Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of CMS, said at the 2015 Health Datapalooza conference.

CMS has released about 400 datasets, constituting millions of lines of data, since it opened up its public data mart in 2010. The data includes detailed information on how providers bill government payers and how providers treat patients, as well as aggregate, anonymized information on patient outcomes.

Previously, CMS reserved program data for use by vetted researchers and academics via the Virtual Research Data Center at CMS. The VRDC was launched in 2013 as way to give researchers access to government payer data at relatively low cost, without requiring users to pay for computing infrastructure.

Some of that information is open and available, but other datasets are more closely held and available only through privacy agreements with CMS. Only de-identified data with no personal health information can be exported from the system.

The details of the innovator program are still being worked out. Commercial developers will still be vetted to gain access to the VRDC, and they will have to produce some research that contributes to what the health privacy law dubs "generalizable knowledge," which is freely available as a precursor to monetizing their research, according to staffers at the CMS Office of Enterprise Data and Analytics. The new program is expected to launch in September 2015.

Entrepreneurs will be able to combine CMS data with other data sources, Slavitt announced, "so even what were small silos of data can have enough credibility to have meaning." Slavitt said he hoped that other holders of proprietary data will follow the lead of CMS in releasing information that can be safely and securely made public.

Slavitt announced that CMS data will be released on a quarterly cycle, rather than annually. "In an information age, it is just not acceptable that the most recent Medicare data available to researchers is from 2013," Slavitt said. CMS is also requiring providers to submit certain data in machine readable format.

Slavitt also urged entrepreneurs to focus on security. "We need to make health care the most private and the most secure data in any industry. Progress will simply not be possible without consumer trust, and we must continuously improve the state of the art in health care cybersecurity," he said.

Another priority, Slavitt said, is for developers to build tools that are geared toward the neediest and sickest patients, and not just "cool-factor gizmos for the healthiest and wealthiest."

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