HHS chief plugs government health data

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius urged federal and local leaders and technology experts on Wednesday to use the agency's extensive health data to create tools that would help individuals and health care providers improve choices and hold the government, including Congress, accountable for the nation's health outcomes.

"These initiatives are aimed at giving Americans and their health care providers more control over their own health care decisions. That's where health reform meets open government," said Sebelius, who emphasized that transparency was a priority for the Obama administration.

She spoke at the Community Health Data Initiative, a group started by HHS and the Institutes of Medicine, which made public the agency's vast accumulation of data on the national, state, local, and hospital level. It covers a variety of topics, including smoking and obesity rates, access to healthy food, utilization of medical services, and quality of hospital treatments.

The first HHS data sets were released by an HHS and IOM working group in March, and several products developed from that information were demonstrated at the forum, with Sebelius in the audience. Presentations included one using Microsoft's Bing search engine, which displays HHS information on hospital quality and patient satisfaction when users search individual hospitals, and a data visualization tool from Palantir Technologies, which layers information from various government sources and could allow users to track federal grants to see whether they are going to the neediest populations or having a measurable impact.

The new tools could help the agency fulfill one duty required by the health care overhaul: to develop a public-private campaign for wellness and prevention that would cost up to $500 million.

The forum also comes amid a push in Congress to add more transparency to the health system by requiring providers to list the price of their services. The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing in May on several bipartisan bills that would require price transparency.

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