Berwick debuts website featuring health data

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By Susan Jaffe, Independent Journalist
From Health Journalism 2011

Journalists have a key role to play making health care safer and informing the public, Medicare chief Donald Berwick told reporters attending the annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists in Philadelphia on Thursday.

Donald Berwick

Donald Berwick

To help them do their job, Berwick unveiled a government website, the “Health Indicators Warehouse,” and offered a live demonstration. He said the site offers “a treasure trove of data,” including information never released before in an easily accessible form, including patient safety data, preventive health care indicators, Medicare payment claims and hospital performance at the state and hospital referral region level. Information is searchable by topic, location, health outcomes among other factors.

After highlighting well-publicized features of the Affordable Care Act, Berwick explained how the law provides tools to reduce health care costs that can also improve the quality of care.

“The best way to make care more affordable and sustainable is to make care better,” he said. “Higher quality and lower cost go together.”

To reduce health care costs, he promised continued scrutiny of Medicare Advantage plans, the government-subsidized private health plans, noting that the health law rewards top-performing plans with bonus payments. The law creates accountable care organizations, in which health care providers coordinate patient care in various medical settings. The new Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation “can now nurture invention around the country… that have the effect of lowering cost and raising quality.”

Berwick criticized a Republican proposal to use state block grants to replace Medicaid, the state-federal partnership that provides health insurance to low-income families.

“They are untested, they are hazardous,” he said, and could short change states during an emergency. “What happens if we issue a block grant to a state and then there’s a flu outbreak or the recession comes back? Well, you’re on your own.”

During the question and answer period, reporter Jodie Jackson of the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune, had a query related to his reporting that showed a lack of communication about inspection findings between CMS, the FDA and The Joint Commission. After hearing about Jackson’s findings, Berwick said he wanted to read that series of articles.

Berwick spoke for about 90 minutes, without a prepared text, and chatted with individual reporters for another half-hour. It was his second appearance at an AHCJ conference; in 2005, he was key-note speaker when he headed the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving patient care and safety. Unlike his first visit, Berwick did not stay and join AHCJ members in watching a basketball game.