Jeff Rowe, Editor, Future Care

Jeff Rowe is the editor of Future Care and a veteran healthcare journalist and blogger who has reported extensively on initiatives to improve the healthcare system at the local, regional and national level.

Secretary Price calls for renewed mission at HHS

May 5, 2017 AT 3:34 PM

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price recently unveiled a new initiative to “reimagine” the massive federal agency he’s been appointed to run for the next four years.

While, to a considerable extent, the call to creative thinking is a standard practice for any new chief administrator, given the constant pace of change across the healthcare sector there’s an additional element of relevance to Price’s goal.

According to remarks he made in a speech outlining the initiative, the bulk of the work will be done by five working groups, each focused on a crucial HHS mission: the healthcare delivery system, the public health system, economic and social well-being, scientific advancement and management and stewardship.

And those working groups, Price said, will be focused six principles for more effective strategy: engagement, empowerment, service, performance, stewardship and sustainability.  In addition, there will be an executive committee comprising both political and career leadership from the Secretary's office and key staff divisions.

"This is about finding ways for our department to better fulfill our mission," Price said during his speech to HHS staff on May 2. "Our goal is to begin reexamining what we do every day and ask ourselves: what are we doing, why are we doing it, how can we do it better and could it be done better somewhere else or through some other process?" 

But while internal assessments are always essential to any organizational change, it’s perhaps even more important for HHS staffers to assess what’s going on outside their office walls and determine how that might influence what should happen within.

For example, no small number of healthcare stakeholders are seriously pondering the implications of emerging blockchain technology.  Many are relishing the prospect of the new data storage paradigm, but others, like attorney Sharon Klein, who services on the recently reorganized HHS task force for cybersecurity, is warily reviewing the implications of blockchain for existing privacy law.

"It's the implementation – in this regulatory environment, particularly given everything else that healthcare needs to deal with – that's the question," Klein, a partner in the health sciences department at law firm Pepper Hamilton and chair of its privacy, security and data protection practice, recently told HealthcareIT News. "All kinds of data can be stored with blockchain. But from a privacy perspective, it matters whether the data that is stored can be considered protected health information and therefore regulated. And then all of the regulatory drag then is applicable."

Klein, who will be speaking at the HIMSS Health Privacy Forum in San Francisco on May 12, points as an example of the potential complications to the implications for updating business associate agreements –  even medium-sized healthcare providers have hundreds of them on file.

"It would break my brain to think of how many business associate agreements you'd have to actually execute, and who would execute them," said Klein. "The structure is so inflexible, and very different from any industry's structure when it comes to exchange of data. That's the hurdle we have to get through.”

This is, of course, just one example of a development that could significantly impact HHS’ strategic focus and operational procedures.   So what are some of the others?

That’s the kind of question HHS stakeholders should be asking as they determine how to change the way they conduct their daily business.