House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., is one of the lawmakers who requested the investigation.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., is one of the lawmakers who requested the investigation. Alex Brandon / AP file photo

Lawmakers Ask Watchdog to Review New Coronavirus Data Reporting System Housed Within HHS 

“We are concerned that these reporting changes undermine the nation’s COVID-19 response efforts,” wrote top House Energy and Commerce Committee members. 

House lawmakers are calling on the congressional watchdog agency to review the Trump administration’s recent order for hospitals to report their coronavirus data to a private contractor through the Health and Human Services Department, instead of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has traditionally been in charge of public health data. 

Reps. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; and Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo., both subcommittee chairwomen, asked the Government Accountability Office on Wednesday to investigate the new reporting requirements and implications of the administration's mid-July order. The administration said the shift was designed to streamline the data reporting process and better assist the White House coronavirus task force; however, the move prompted concerns from state health officials, doctors, lawmakers, data experts, and current and former members of a federal health advisory committee. Over the last month and a half, there have been questions raised about the quality of the data, process by which the contract was awarded and potential political interference

“Not only have HHS’ actions seemingly sidelined the nation’s top public health officials, but they have also reportedly led to unnecessary confusion, additional burden on critical COVID-19 response professionals, and the loss of timely and reliable data, all in the midst of the pandemic when people’s lives are at stake,” the lawmakers wrote. “We are concerned that these reporting changes undermine the nation’s COVID-19 response efforts.”

The lawmakers separated their investigation request into three categories: positive or negative effects on federal, state and local health departments, patients and hospitals; data quality and use; and the decision process to make the switch and award a $10.2 million contract to Teletracking Technologies. 

The lawmakers noted that experts have said the new system is “overly cumbersome” and was allegedly developed without input from public health experts and other stakeholders. “It also remains unknown if or how data are being validated,” they wrote. 

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., sent a list of questions to Teletracking Technologies about how it received the contract and its arrangement with the administration. However, a lawyer for the company wrote in a letter on Aug. 3, obtained by The New York Times, that the company couldn’t provide information not already public due to a non-disclosure agreement. 

GAO told Government Executive that officials had received the request for the investigation and are going through the review process to determine if they will take it up.

Besides congressional members, data and public health experts have raised questions and concerns about the switch. 

Nick Hart, CEO of the Data Coalition, a trade group that works to make government information more accurate and accessible, said his organization “remains concerned that the unexpected changes to the HHS data infrastructure occurred without appropriate transparency, and that HHS has not taken meaningful steps to address the concerns raised by stakeholders.” 

He recommended the administration develop a “National Secure Data Service” to better support its use of data throughout the pandemic by providing basic standards and “routine checks on fitness for use.” This would build on the federal government’s pre-existing data strategies, he said. 

Former CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden, president and CEO of the Resolve to Save Lives, an initiative of the global public health organization Vital Strategies, said, "building systems like this take time to get up and running effectively." The switch in reporting systems was “abrupt and unprecedented,” he told Government Executive, and “we’ll have to wait and see if the promised improvements materialize.” 

Hart, Frieden and Jonathan Weiner, professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, all noted that the pandemic could be an opportunity to fix long-term data issues in the country. 

“Although many data reporting advances have been made since the COVID outbreak, hopefully this is a wakeup call for the vital importance of ‘situational awareness’ public health surveillance data and the need for ongoing investment that is needed from now on to protect the life and health of Americans,” Weiner said. 

CDC and HHS did not respond for comment.