Niall Brennan, former Chief Data Officer at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, is President and Executive Director of the Health Care Cost Institute. Brennan will be the keynote speaker at the Quality Institute’s Winter All Council Conference on December 8.
You have spoken about how, as CMS chief data officer, you oversaw the release of hospital charge data in 2013 that became big news and the buzz of Washington. Can you tell us about the impact the release of hospital price data had?
It was a pretty crazy experience. We didn’t have any expectations about how the data would be received. So when you release a set of data on Sunday and wake up Monday to newspaper headlines and then turn on CNN and MSNBC and everybody’s talking about it — as a health care data geek, that’s pretty incredible. I know not all insured people pay the hospital charge master prices, but it did spark a very important national conversation.
More data is available today. Can you tell us how consumers can use the data?
CMS built upon that earlier data release and now provides incredibly granular data on utilization and payments for procedures, services and prescription drugs. There’s in-patient and outpatient hospital data. CMS is releasing data that gives you insight into your doctor’s prescribing habits. That didn’t exist before.
Consumers can absolutely look up the prescribing patterns of their physician. Why is that important? For instance, if your physician is prescribing a pretty expensive brand name drug you might want to get information on whether that physician is receiving money from the company that makes the drug. If so, you might want to find a second physician.
How are consumers engaging with the data?
To be honest, we’ve struggled to really meet consumers at a place where they are comfortable absorbing the data and using the data to make health care decisions. There are a lot of websites and comparison tools and yet most consumers do fail to engage with this information. We need to have a conversation about what is appropriate and valuable for consumers. You know there are a lot of powerful actors in health care: providers, payers, and employers. Consumers are the least powerful. We have to be careful that we do not engage in victim blaming. We can’t say, ‘We’ve given consumers rudimentary tools and still costs continue to rise, so let’s blame consumers.’
Some estimates predict if current trends don’t change, health care spending in the U.S. will have risen from around $2.5 trillion in 2014 to $5.6 trillion by the end of 2025. Do you see reducing costs as also reducing quality for consumers?
Reducing costs and improving quality are not opposing goals. They are complementary goals. It’s difficult to convey that philosophy to the American consumer who wants everything and the kitchen sink. The reality is that too much health care is actually bad for you. We spend more on heath care than any other country and there are long-held findings that we have worse health outcomes than countries that spend less than we do.
Yes, it’s true there are families in England and Ireland that will come to the states to have a child with a rare cancer treated here. The U.S. is a shining example of innovation and technology. But that should not obscure the fact that for many Americans, both insured and uninsured, the level of care is frankly substandard and often unnecessary. It creates an economic burden and a quality burden when doctors are doing spinal surgery and injecting eye medications that are just not needed and can hurt patients.
Can you tell us something that people might be surprised to learn about you?
I was once a roadie for Nirvana. I used to be a DJ at a rock club in D.C. Hmmm … I once flew under the Golden Gate Bridge in a helicopter. Oh, here’s something your New Jersey audience would find interesting. My first job (Brennan was born in Ireland) in the states was as a carney in Point Pleasant.