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At the World Health Care Congress, HHS Secretary Alex Azar Maps Out His Agency’s Top Priorities for Industry Leaders

May 2, 2018
by Mark Hagland
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At the World Health Care Congress, HHS Secretary Alex Azar mapped out for attendees his strategic vision of where the U.S. healthcare system needs to go

In a major speech to healthcare industry leaders early Wednesday morning, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar shared with his audience at the World Health Care Congress, being held at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., his agency’s broad strategies for transforming the U.S. healthcare system. Azar pointed to what he sees as the absolute necessity of fundamentally transforming the healthcare system to make it less costly, more transparent, more consumer-centric, of higher documented quality, and better connected through data and information.

Among the top priorities Secretary Azar cited early on in his speech: accelerating the value-based transformation of the healthcare system; combatting the opioid abuse crisis; and addressing the cost and quality of U.S. healthcare. Speaking of the healthcare system he envisions, he said that “Such a system will pay for health and outcomes rather than sickness.”

Further, Azar said, “We at HHS know that the idea of value-based transformation is not new. President Bush, in whose administration I served, and President Obama, both worked on this. I personally worked on this under Mike Leavitt,” a Bush Administration HHS Secretary. “HHS has often lagged behind the private sector, where so many of you have made so much progress,” he said. “Everyone here recognizes that the current system will not last,” as it has become unsustainable because of its cost.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar speaking Wednesday

Azar cited four top goals for HHS as an agency in the immediate future: “maximizing the promise of health IT; improving transparency in price and quality; pioneering bold new models in Medicare and Medicaid; removing artificial regulatory barriers and burdens that impede care coordination.” And, he added, “The best way to identify and reward value is through a marketplace of many players, and where necessary, through third-party payers.”

Azar spent some time promoting the rollout of the Blue Button 2.0 program, which Seema Verma, Administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), had promoted both at the HIMSS Conference on March 6, and again on Monday at the World Health Care Congress. Indeed, as Administrator Verma had said on Monday, Blue Button 2.0, which is a part of the broader CMS MyHealthEData Initiative that she had announced at HIMSS18 on March 6. On Monday at WHCC, Verma had described Blue Button 2.0 as “a developer-friendly, standards-based API [application programming interface], which will allow a majority of beneficiaries connect their claims data to payers. We are also working to advance price transparency,” she added. “In virtually every sector of the economy, you are aware of the cost of services before you accept them. Patients need to know” the costs and value of healthcare services received, she said. What’s more, she said, “We are proposing a requirement that hospitals post their charges online. We’re just getting started, and are asking for input” from provider leaders nationwide.

Compelling provider pricing transparency, via rulemaking

With regard to that, Azar spent some time talking about a major element in the proposed rule for 2019 the draft Fiscal Year 2019 Inpatient Prospective Payment System, which was announced on April 24. As articulated on the HHS website, “CMS’s proposed policy changes include: requiring hospitals to post their standard list of prices on the Internet and in a machine-readable format, rather than just being required to make them available in some form; focusing the Electronic Health Record Incentive Program on promoting interoperability, to allow patients to  control their records and access them in a usable format; eliminating duplicative. overly burdensome, or out-of-date quality measures through the ‘Meaningful Measures’ initiative.” That April 24 announcement also noted that “CMS also issued a Request for Information soliciting comment on new ways to: “Stop “surprise billing” by providers; provide patients better information up front about the out-of-pocket costs they will face; encourage further transparency from providers, including providing tools for comparing prices and making public which institutions are out of compliance with transparency measures; push providers reimbursed by Medicare to take more steps in making their electronic health records interoperable.”

“We’ve spent more than a decade talking about the importance of interoperability,” Azar said this morning. “Today, progress has been made on interoperability, but more importantly, new technology has made it possible for govt to be focused on the what, not the how, of interoperability. Patients ought to have access to their own data, period,” he said. “But they also need access to data on price and quality. Knowledge is power. And knowing more information can lead to better healthcare.”


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