HHS renews contract with TeleTracking, despite lingering questions
[Update: This story has been updated to include comment from an HHS spokesperson.]
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has renewed the contract with TeleTracking to continue collecting COVID-19 patient data from hospitals, according to reporting from NPR.
On Friday, NPR reported that HHS awarded a second six-month, $10.2 million contract to TeleTracking, a Pittsburgh-based data firm.
"Over the course of our contract with Health and Human Services, we have proven that we can systematically improve compliance and enable hospitals around the country to report on their COVID-19 data quickly, consistently and transparently," TeleTracking President Christopher Johnson told Healthcare IT News.
Johnson pointed to TeleTracking's decades-long analytics experience, and said that the company "has empowered the world’s largest healthcare systems with actionable and meaningful data to make better, faster decisions about patient access and patient care.
"Overall, we hope to help the healthcare system reduce waste and improve efficiency," he added. "Many pundits point to pricing reform or new coverage policy as ways to eliminate waste in the system. At TeleTracking, we believe that investing in the improvement of healthcare operations is the most effective, expedient and bi-partisan way forward."
"The federal government is still actively responding to this pandemic and this data is necessary to the response. Therefore, we have extended the contract. Since HHS streamlined data reporting, we are receiving information from 95% of hospitals daily," an HHS spokesperson said. "The contract was modified to include a 6-month extension and HHS exercised this extension at the same time."
WHY IT MATTERS
The government's contract with TeleTracking has been the source of lingering questions from elected officials and federal agencies.
This summer, HHS' directive to hospitals to bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and enter COVID-19 patient data directly into its TeleTracking portal sparked alarm among stakeholders and medical groups, who feared it meant that the information would be politicized.
A few weeks prior, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, wrote an open letter claiming that TeleTracking had been issued a noncompetitive contract. HHS has repeatedly denied this claim; a spokesperson told Healthcare IT News that the contract was part of a competitive solicitation process and that the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response had received six submissions to the area of interest under the Broad Agency Announcement in 2016. In August reporting, NPR argued that a BAA "isn't meant for something like a government database that replaces an existing CDC function."
NPR also reports that key officials inside HHS Secretary Alex Azar's office "fast-tracked" the contract. An HHS spokesperson told Healthcare IT News that in March, ASPR approached the National Healthcare Safety Network team at CDC about adding additional reporting fields to its hospital surveys while the division sought to contract with TeleTracking in complementary efforts.
The spokesperson said that it has been determined that NHSN was not designed for use in a disaster response and cannot adapt with necessary speed and agility for an active public health response.
Hospitals also described "chaos" as they struggled to pivot to the new system, some with only a few days' notice. Some specifically noted the new required data fields as a marked increase from the systems they'd been previously using. As NPR reports, the Federal Register is seeking comments on behalf of HHS about the burden imposed on hospitals by the new reporting requirements, which is a requirement of the Paperwork Reduction Act.
A month after the new requirements went into effect, many hospital associations – including those that had reported initial difficulties – said they'd settled into the new routine, although some still faced hurdles.
With regard to the required fields, Johnson said, "We have … proven to be adaptable, enabling the authorities to add data fields quickly, as needed."
"These improvements have, overall, led to more informed decision making by the authorities," Johnson added.
THE LARGER TREND
The federal government appeared to throw yet another spanner in the works this past month, when NPR reported that the Trump administration planned to crack down on hospitals that were not meeting reporting requirements. Failure to do so after multiple warnings, said a draft letter obtained by NPR, would result in the termination of the Medicare provider agreement.
In a letter to CMS Administrator Seema Verma shared with Healthcare IT News, Missouri Hospital Association President and CEO Herb Kuhn said the guidelines for data submission "have never been clearly communicated with hospitals."
"Complex and stringent data requirements, coupled with the feedback of inaccurate data and the lack of clear guidance, have set hospitals up to fail," said Kuhn.
And contrary to initial statements by HHS and the CDC, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield told members of Congress that the agency "wasn't directly involved in the final decision" to switch reporting requirements. Redfield later walked this statement back on Twitter, saying that discontinuing NHSN data "was discussed at the working levels at CDC."
ON THE RECORD
"We are proud of our efforts and our nimble ability to get up and running to support the U.S. government, and our fellow Americans, during the greatest healthcare crisis that the world has ever seen," said Johnson.