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Tag Archive: HHS

Feds have no policy on posting meetings

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While the federal government has extensive rules about how its regulatory agencies makes rules--with notices, publication schedules and comment periods--there is no government-wide policy for providing information to the public about meetings between executive branch officials and private interests. These contacts between regulators those seeking to influence them--refered to as ex parte meetings--can have a profound effect on the final shape of the rules that govern everything from disposing of trash to disclosing positions in complex derivatives. Yet there is no uniform requirement to make information about these meetings available to the public, let alone whether or not agencies must ...

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Defining “High Value Data” Is Hard. So Let’s Not Do It.

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of sitting on a Sunshine Week panel moderated by Patrice McDermott, along with CRP's Sheila Krumholz, Pro Publica's Jennifer LaFleur and Todd Park of HHS. We touched on a lot of different topics, including one that by now is probably familiar to anyone who's followed the progress of the Open Government Directive: frustration with the vagueness of the term "high value datasets." Various organizations--Sunlight included--have criticized the administration for releasing "high value" datasets that seem to actually be of questionable usefulness.

Jennifer coined a formulation of what she considers to be a high value dataset, and it attracted some support on the panel:

Information on anything that's inspected, spent, enforced, or licensed. That's what I want, and that's what the public wants.

I don't think this is a bad formulation. But while I'm not anxious to tie myself into knots of relativism, we should keep in mind the degree to which "high value" is in the eye of the beholder. It's clear how Jennifer's criteria map to the needs of journalists like those at Pro Publica. But if you consider the needs of someone working with weather data, or someone constructing a GIS application--two uses of government data that have spawned thriving industries, and generated a lot of wealth--it's obvious that the definition isn't complete. To use a more melodramatic example, if World War III broke out tomorrow, a KML inventory of fallout shelters could quickly go from being an anachronism to a vital asset.

The point isn't that Jennifer's definition is bad, but rather that any definition is going to be incomplete. The problem isn't that agencies did a bad job of interpreting "high value" (though to be clear, some did do a bad job); rather, it's that formulating their task in this way was bound to produce unsatisfactory results.

We're going about this backward. Ideally, we'd be able to start by talking about what the available datasets are, not by trying to figure out what we hope they'll turn out to be. Government should audit its data holdings, publish the list, then ask the public to identify what we want and need. This won't be easy, but it's far from impossible. And any other approach will inevitably leave the public wondering what we're not being told.

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Wall Street Journal sues for access to Medicare records

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The Wall Street Journal announced today that it's suing for access to data on payments that doctors receive from Medicare, which has been exempt from public disclosure thanks to a 1979 court case won by the American Medical Association. The Journal argues that absent data on the payments, it's impossible for journalists or members of the public to tell which doctors are billing the system improperly. "It's time to overturn an injunction that, for decades, has allowed some doctors to defraud Medicare free from public scrutiny," Mark Jackson, the counsel for Dow Jones, the Journal's immediate ...

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Can we rate heart surgeries like blenders?

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The Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, released a set of ratings yesterday for something rather more important than appliances: heart bypass surgery. Using data submitted to the Society of Thoracic Surgeons (STS), the Consumers Union has graded various heart surgery groups using a three-star scale, similar to the way it rates radios, cameras and washing machines. It's a set of valuable public data that could serve as a model for expanding the Department of Health and Human Services' open government sites like Data.medicare.gov and the Community Health Data Initiative.

The heart surgery ratings are based on ...

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OGD: FDA to launch product recall database

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When salmonella outbreaks were discovered last year in peanut butter and pistachios, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took action by posting information about affected products on its web page, creating a widget where consumers could do look-ups, and providing a downloadable database of the information--all of which proved tremendously popular. Starting this fall, the public will have access to a similar database containing details about all food, drug, and medical device recalls that occurred throughout the year, according to agency officials.

This database, which will be available to download in xml format, as well as via a ...

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OGD: A state-by-state look at Medicare payments

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Click on the picture for a larger version.

Over the last few years, hospitals in a few states have consistently received more money than others from Medicare in so-called "outlier payments" for inpatient services. These additional payments are handed out when a hospital takes on an unusually expensive case.

This takeaway comes from a quick review of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)' "Dashboard," a new online repository of spending data.

While the Dashboard is still in its beta version, and currently only has inpatient data (no home health or nursing home information, for example), a few points ...

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