First CMS Chief Data Officer Lays Out Vision, Priorities

While data has traditionally been viewed more as a by-product of operations at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services than a core mission, Niall Brennan, CMS’s first chief data officer and head of the newly created Office of Enterprise Data and Analytics (OEDA), says that is about to change.

Brennan told Health Data Management that OEDA, which was formed last month by CMS to improve data collection and dissemination, is the “culmination of how the agency has been increasingly placing data and analytics as part of its core mission” as it has “evolved from a passive payer of claims into a value-based purchaser of care” over the past couple of years. With significant growth in the volume of CMS data and data users—both internally and externally—ensuring that the data is timely, relevant and accessible is critical, he argues.

CMS provides healthcare coverage for more than 100 million Americans through the Medicare and Medicaid programs. In addition, the agency processes more than 1 billion claims a year and generates billions of other non-claim data points. It also receives data submissions under the meaningful use EHR program, health insurance exchange program and numerous quality measurement initiatives. Nonetheless, according to Brennan, data silos continue to hinder data integration across the enterprise at CMS. Breaking down these silos requires changes in the agency’s culture and data governance, which he sees as a key function in his role as chief data officer.

“In many respects, there are still a lot of data silos at the agency, where data in one part of the agency is not available or used in another part of the agency when it could,” said Brennan. “And, there are different data sources that are at radically different stages of maturity. So, for example, our Medicaid and Medicare data sources have a pretty advanced degree of maturity but with our Medicare Advantage and encounter data—those are the claims data we get from the private plan option in Medicare—we’re really only starting to get our hands around that data now.”

“We’ve got a lot of data on the HITECH or meaningful use program. We’ve got a lot of quality data and obviously with the launch of and the federally-facilitated marketplace there’s a host of data there,” he adds.

CMS has released several very large datasets on utilization, payments, and charges for procedures and services provided to Medicare beneficiaries. At the same time, CMS has experienced challenges with the veracity and usefulness of data it is making available, such as on the Hospital Compare website, among others.

“We’re absolutely committed to transparency, not only transparency but also accuracy. There’s no point in being transparent if your numbers aren’t accurate,” asserts Brennan. “These are generally early days for transparency in healthcare and we are at the forefront of that effort. It’s not entirely surprising that if you look across our entire suite of publicly available products that some may not check everybody’s box of what actually constitutes useful information. We’re constantly striving to make our publicly available datasets better.”

OEDA’s focus going forward is on “maximizing CMS data for both internal and external users,” he said. “We have increasingly embraced data whether it’s for fighting fraud in real time or producing real-time readmissions data, making data available to researchers, providers and the public.”

According to Brennan, the origins of OEDA can be traced to the CMS Office of Information Products and Data Analytics, established in 2012 to oversee the development, management, use, and dissemination of CMS’s data and information resources. However, he points out that that OEDA is “explicitly charged with working more broadly across the enterprise” with functions that did not exist in the precursor OIPDA, such as the management of data use agreements.

Commenting on his role as CMS’s first chief data officer, Brennan makes the case that his job is quite different from the agency’s chief information officer. While the CIO “leads the way on information technology support services and the strategic direction related to those activities, focusing on infrastructure and security,” the CDO “figures out how to optimize and maximize the data created by all those systems.”

Brennan recognizes the critical role of analytics in transforming data resources into information and insight. “Historically, I think IT departments have focused on collecting and storing data, not necessarily aggressively analyzing it,” he comments. “So, I think it’s the role of the chief data officer to foster that kind of analytic inquiry and culture change around data.”

The analysis of data will be “front and center” at CMS “alongside integrating data appropriately across the enterprise,” concludes Brennan, who comes to OEDA from the agency’s Offices of Enterprise Management, where he served as acting director. “You can’t analyze data that you can’t get to.”

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