The magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of having quality data to help the federal government understand the healthcare system's capacity to provide care and to inform the allocation of resources. HHS launched HHS Protect in April 2020 to capture hospital capacity data. Throughout the public health emergency, HHS has made changes to how information is collected and used. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to evaluate that data.
The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing COVID-19 monitoring and oversight efforts. GAO was asked to examine HHS's implementation of HHS Protect. In this report, GAO describes (1) HHS's implementation of HHS Protect hospital capacity reporting requirements and the challenges experienced by reporting entities; (2) HHS's and stakeholders' use of the data, if at all; and (3) lessons learned about ensuring the collection of quality hospital capacity data during a public health emergency.
HHS agency officials and stakeholders identified the need for stakeholder engagement and improved communication among key lessons learned to better ensure the collection of quality hospital capacity data during a public health emergency. For example, HHS officials told GAO that there is a need for dialogue and external validation to ensure data quality and accuracy. They also noted that the need for a system like HHS Protect will continue beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.
Officials GAO interviewed from stakeholder organizations and selected states noted that increased collaboration and communication—as well as more time to implement changes—would have facilitated the implementation of the changes to the data collection process. These lessons learned are consistent with GAO's January 2021 recommendation that HHS engage with stakeholders to review and inform the alignment of ongoing data collection and reporting standards through establishing an expert committee. HHS agreed with the recommendation, but as of June 2021, the department has not implemented it.
HHS used the data to distribute resources and inform the public. HHS officials said that some states that don't collect their own data also used it. Some public health organizations preferred to use more detailed state or local data for their purposes.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) made frequent and significant changes to the collection of hospital capacity data. In April 2020, HHS created a new data ecosystem—HHS Protect—to capture, among other things, national- and state-level data on inpatient and intensive care beds in use, supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), and COVID-19 treatments.
Subsequently, HHS changed the methods through which data could be reported to HHS Protect and also changed reporting requirements. According to HHS officials, this was done to capture more complete data and to capture more information, such as data on influenza-related hospitalizations and COVID-19 vaccines administered.