Virtual Research Data Center Offers Secure Timely Access to Data at Lower Cost

By Niall Brennan, Acting Director, Offices of Enterprise Management

One of the Obama administration’s top priorities is to make healthcare affordable through better quality and more efficient delivery.  But a thoughtful approach to health system transformation requires the country’s best minds working on it, using the most comprehensive, up-to-date evidence available.

On November 12, the Obama administration took an important step forward on this path.  At the White House’s Data to Knowledge to Action event, Building New Partnerships, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced the new Virtual Research Data Center (VRDC), which can provide the nation’s researchers with access to the most comprehensive, up-to-date data sets available through CMS.

CMS covers 100 million Americans through Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and soon through the Health Insurance Marketplace. The Medicare program is the nation’s largest health insurer, handling more than 1 billion claims per year.  We have made our data sets available to researchers for many years.  Studies that help us better understand the healthcare ecosystem are published almost weekly in major medical journals based on CMS data.

Demand for CMS data has grown exponentially in recent years.  Historically, the scale of CMS data and a lack of technological alternatives meant most researchers were physically shipped data, with yearly updates as permitted. Medicare data for 2012 is only just now being physically shipped to researchers. Through the VRDC, we are changing that. The VRDC will help investigators access data in a much timelier manner and will provide them with a variety of tools to analyze the data.  It will also help approved researchers doing approved surveillance and other studies that require current data, which needs to be refreshed on a regular basis, something that has traditionally been unavailable.

We also want CMS data to be affordable, and the VRDC helps with this, too. The lowest price of a complete set of Medicare Parts A, B, and D data was more than $100,000 for a single year, and many researchers need multiple years of data.  Now, with the VRDC, a single researcher conducting one project over the course of the year can have access to as much data as his or her research requires for $40,000.  User fees reflect the cost of making the data available and are used to fund CMS data dissemination to researchers.  Additional users can be added to a project for $15,000. We believe this helps lower any price-based barriers to obtaining Medicare data.

Finally, the VRDC will make data sharing more secure.  In the VRDC, sensitive, individually-identifiable information about beneficiaries never leaves the CMS data environment.  This can help prevent breaches or unauthorized data use.  In addition, since researchers will be accessing CMS data through a secure virtual desktop, they no longer need to maintain expensive data infrastructures of their own or prove to CMS through data security assessments that their data infrastructure meets the security requirements in the CMS Data Use Agreement.   However, I also want to assure established CMS data users who have invested significant sums in an existing data storage infrastructure:  you can still get your data physically as you always have. CMS data has the potential to help create a more efficient, higher-quality healthcare system. Our goal is to break down barriers to information and encourage innovation in health care delivery.  Even under the old system, CMS data has provided the basis for breakthroughs in healthcare reform.  We look forward to using the VRDC to stimulate innovations that are equally groundbreaking in years to come.

For more information or to submit a VRDC research request, visit the ResDAC VRDC webpage: http://www.resdac.org/cms-data/request/cms-virtual-research-data-center.

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