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CMS Launches New Data Sharing Tool

November 13, 2013
by Rajiv Leventhal
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The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has announced the launch of a new data sharing tool to help researchers virtually access and analyze CMS’ store of healthcare data.  

The tool—the CMS Virtual Research Data Center (VRDC)—was unveiled on November 12 at the White House event “Data to Knowledge to Action: Building New Partnerships” as part of President Obama's Big Data Research and Development Initiative.

Researchers using the VRDC will access CMS data from their own workstations and will be able to perform analyses and manipulate data within the VRDC.  Historically, CMS has filled researchers’ data requests by preparing and shipping encrypted data files.  However, given the rapidly-growing demand for timelier Medicare and Medicaid data, the agency needs a less resource-intensive means of responding to data requests from researchers.  The VRDC will help CMS meet these demands while also ensuring data privacy and security and reducing the cost of data access for most users, according to CMS officials.

Using the VRDC, researchers will be able to access Medicare data at a significantly lower cost. Physical delivery of a large sample of Medicare Parts A, B, and D data can cost more than $100,000 for just one year of data.  In contrast, using the VRDC, a single researcher conducting one project over the course of the year can access as much Medicare data as he or she needs for approximately $40,000, CMS officials say.

Additionally, researchers will not need to maintain expensive data infrastructures of their own because they will access the data in a CMS environment by means of a secure virtual desktop.  Due to the time-consuming nature of physical data delivery, CMS generally only has shipped data to researchers on an annual basis in the past.  However, researchers using the VRDC now will be able to refresh their data analyses routinely.

The VRDC also offers greater security for CMS to share data with researchers.  The protection of beneficiary privacy continues to be a priority for CMS when sharing data.  Under the VRDC model, sensitive individually-identifiable information about beneficiaries remains in the CMS data environment, which helps safeguard against breaches or unauthorized uses of the data, say officials.

We’re acutely aware of the huge potential that CMS data holds for creating a more efficient, higher quality health care system, and researchers play a large part in this transformation,” CMS administrator Marilyn Tavenner said in a statement.  “By providing researchers with secure, timely, and affordable access to CMS data, the agency is making it easier to do the important research that will lay the foundation for better quality and lower costs in the healthcare system.”


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