Helping to Answer Pressing Policy Questions with Data and Analytics

By Joel Cohen, PhD, Director of AHRQ’s Center for Financing, Access and Cost Trends and David Meyers, MD, AHRQ’s Acting Director
Twitter: @AHRQNews

The Biden-Harris Administration has made protecting and expanding access to quality, affordable healthcare one of its top priorities. This commitment will require policy decisions on critical issues ranging from expanding access to health insurance to lowering prescription drug prices to addressing persistent healthcare inequities. AHRQ’s rich healthcare data resources and data analytical capabilities can play a pivotal role in helping to address these and other complex challenges.

AHRQ is evolving and expanding our data platforms, including the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) and the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP), to be more comprehensive, timely, and relevant. We are investing in expanding the MEPS sample size and have developed a new national database on the social determinants of health.

We not only produce valid and reliable datasets, we use them. AHRQ has assembled an exceptional team of analysts, data scientists, and economists. Their analytic expertise – the ability to take raw data and translate it into a coherent framework for understanding what factors actually drive healthcare use, costs, and quality – is the engine that drives AHRQ’s ability to inform policy making. By combining data and analytic insight, AHRQ’s team is able to develop reliable models that can be used to understand the effects of policy options on the delivery of healthcare services.

The Agency has a long history of using its data and analytic capacity to provide policymakers with information that has allowed them to improve the Nation’s healthcare. For instance:

  • AHRQ researchers established evidence of “job lock” – the circumstances that prevent people from changing jobs for fear of losing their health insurance. This critical issue led to important provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), which provided families and individuals access to continuous health insurance coverage even when losing or changing their jobs.
  • AHRQ data and analyses were used by the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) Payment and Access Commission (MACPAC) in making recommendations to Congress about the reauthorization of CHIP. Based to a large extent on AHRQ findings, the Commission recommended that premiums not be charged to low- income families. Congress subsequently reauthorized CHIP and accepted the MACPAC recommendation on premiums.
  • In wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, AHRQ provided Federal and State policymakers with the first detailed estimates of hospital bed capacity and intensive care unit and ventilator availability. More recently, the Agency provided some of the first statistics on potential COVID-19 exposure risk among racial and ethnic minority populations and individuals and families connected with schools.

Building on this tradition of high-quality healthcare data collection and analysis, AHRQ stands ready to provide critical information to today’s policy makers to help them improve the U.S. healthcare system.

AHRQ has a nationally recognized capacity for microsimulation modeling that can be used to explore the effects of proposed reforms to public and private health insurance programs, including CHIP, Medicaid, the employer-based private insurance market, and the marketplaces created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As successful as these markets and programs have been, important gaps and disparities in health insurance access and coverage remain.

In addition, the costs of care remain high – both systemically and for individuals and families. AHRQ researchers are working with others in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and across the Federal and State Governments to address affordability using the tools, expertise, and data resources at our disposal.

During this time of transition, AHRQ is preparing to provide empirical input on critical health policy related issues such as:

  • ACA-related issues pertaining to coverage gaps, uneven subsidies, and premium assistance
  • Prescription drug rebate reform
  • Paid sick leave
  • Hospital quality, costs, capacity, and service availability
  • Predictions of hospital utilization following potential future disasters.

AHRQ is prepared to use its considerable data and analytic resources to produce evidence to help make healthcare safer, higher quality, more accessible, equitable, and affordable. We are eager to maintain and expand our collaborations with HHS and other partners to make sure that evidence is understood and used.

This article was originally published on AHRQ Views Blog and is republished here with permission.