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U.S. Government Prepares To Crack Down On Hospitals For Not Reporting COVID-19 Data

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The federal government is preparing to crack down on hospitals for not reporting COVID-19 data on a daily basis. That crackdown comes in the form of cutting off Medicare funding to hospitals that don't comply. And draft documents obtained by NPR show that the government is now taking steps to begin those cuts. As NPR reporters Pien Huang and Selena Simmons-Duffin have been reporting, it's a change that could affect many hospitals. Pien joins us now to discuss.

Welcome.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Hi, Sacha. Great to be here.

PFEIFFER: Good to have you. Tell us, what's in these documents you've gotten a hold of?

HUANG: So we've obtained drafts of guidance and letters that the government plans to send out to hospitals this week. The letters remind hospitals to report daily information about COVID-19 cases to the federal government. This is information about how many COVID patients they have, how many ventilators are available. And the federal government has been asking, then demanding and now threatening to get this information from hospitals. The White House Coronavirus Task Force says they need this data to understand what's happening. And the Department of Health and Human Services is trying to collect it.

PFEIFFER: And, Pien, in general, it seems like information sharing would be a good thing all around. Why are hospitals having to be prodded to comply?

HUANG: Yeah, some of this information is important for health authorities at all levels to understand things like which hospitals are filling up or running low on drugs for treating COVID. But hospitals are unhappy with the amount of information HHS is asking for and how they're asking for it.

Early in the pandemic, hospitals were reporting this information to the CDC using a system many had been using for years. But in July, HHS, which oversees CDC, shut down the CDC option for reporting, and that created a lot of pushback. Politicians and public health experts were raising concerns that that was sidelining CDC in a pandemic. And for hospitals, the move also created a lot of headaches. They had to learn how to use a new system. They had to answer a lot more questions.

We talked to Carrie Kroll from the Texas Hospital Association, and she says someone now has to go all over the hospital every day to get that data.

CARRIE KROLL: We're talking about bedside nursing-type statistics in terms of COVID patients versus adult versus child. And then you're talking about pharmaceuticals, so that's going to come from the pharmacy.

HUANG: And now hospitals are being threatened with the loss of Medicare funding if they miss a few days of reporting.

PFEIFFER: How many hospitals are we talking about?

HUANG: Well, NPR has seen slides from a CDC presentation given internally yesterday, and they show that if the new enforcement guidelines go into effect as they're drafted, around 75% of hospitals would be receiving a warning that they were out of compliance.

PFEIFFER: Wow.

HUANG: And the new draft guidelines (ph) also ask for even more information. Hospitals are going to have to start reporting on daily flu cases in addition to COVID-19, even though CDC already has a system that monitors flu and that's been up and running for years.

PFEIFFER: Then how else will the government get hospitals to comply?

HUANG: Well, public health experts say that hospitals are really trying to comply. And Lisa M. Lee, who used to be in charge of public health surveillance at CDC, says you have to make it easier, not harder, on them. For example, nobody I've spoken with knows how to accurately count the number of single exam gloves in a hospital. Lee is also concerned that the threat of losing funding might cause hospitals to start making up data to report.

LISA M LEE: I am afraid that what that will do is make the data much less accurate and reliable. And that is only going to hurt the American public.

PFEIFFER: Pien, very briefly - when is this all supposed to take effect?

HUANG: Well, the letters look like they're going out next week. But the actual enforcement is probably weeks away still. And we've asked for comment but have not gotten a response.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Pien Huang. Thank you.

HUANG: Thank you.

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