David McCallie, Jr., MD, SVP of medical informatics for Cerner and co-founder of CommonWell Health Alliance, invited HIStalk readers to submit their questions about CommonWell. He obtained answers from the most appropriate CommonWell resource. These replies were provided by David along with Dan Schipfer (VP/GM of government for Cerner and CommonWell operating committee chair); Nick Knowlton (VP of business development for Brightree and CommonWell membership chair); Bob Robke (VP for Cerner and CommonWell treasurer); and Jitin Asnaani (director for Athenahealth and CommonWell operating committee co-chair).
How do organizations like CommonWell promote interoperable transfer of health information to non-members? If our goal is a national infrastructure for transfer of PHI, don’t these aggregations of health partners create barriers to a national solution?
From a strategic point of view, CommonWell’s founders created the network because they did not believe that any of the existing approaches met the need for national-scale federated query based on robust identity management and record locator services. CommonWell’s founders believe that regional and vendor-proprietary networks won’t meet the demand for universal query connectivity. In contrast, CommonWell membership is open to all HIT suppliers and their customers, nationwide. However, if other networks emerge that cover substantial portions of consumers, CommonWell is open to creation of bridging services that could interconnect with other networks.
More tactically today, we feel that CommonWell has already promoted interoperable transfer of health information by publicly calling out the important issue of the lack of a common patient identifier in US health care. Second, to advance the state of the art, CommonWell members have designed and published specifications that address the problem of the missing patient identifier. These specifications are available for any and all (i.e. members and non-members) to evaluate, improve, implement, and use under common open source licensing.
Does CommonWell have any plans for taking the initiative outside of the US?
We’re taking it one step at a time. Currently, CommonWell’s focus is to deliver real-world interoperability services across the US.
Why did some folks refer to CommonWell (in its early days) as the "HIE killer" and is that still a valid point? Accordingly, do entities like Aetna (who has invested in Medicity) and Optum (with their Axolotl acquisition) consider CommonWell to be a threat?
It is difficult to speculate on behalf of “some folks,” but CommonWell is not attempting to “kill” any type of exchange. CommonWell is designed to offer a national-scale service because we believe that a patient’s provider should have access to that patient’s information regardless of where the information lives. Through this approach to “universal plumbing,” members can expect an increase in the access to health information for their providers and a decrease in the cost and time for providers and their patients to gain access to their health information.
By addressing shortcomings in existing exchange models (such as imprecise standards that inhibit vendor to vendor connectivity), CommonWell is drastically reducing time and associated expense to achieving health information exchange. Furthermore, in a world driving towards the triple aim, interoperability initiatives such as CommonWell are aligned with goals common to payers, patients, provider networks, and national healthcare delivery objectives.
How does CommonWell relate to the Argonaut project?
There is no formal relationship. The Argonaut Project is an industry-funded initiative to accelerate the development of technical standards (FHIR and OAuth) in conjunction with HL7. On the other hand, CommonWell is a trade association that is deploying a national network. The results of the Argonaut Project should complement CommonWell’s existing use of standards, which are partially based on FHIR, as well as on standard IHE profiles like XCA (for document-based exchange). The standards work stimulated by the Argonaut Project will be important to HIT in general. CommonWell hopes to leverage these new standards to provide enhanced services as they become formalized.
What fees will be collected for using CommonWell’s system, who pays those fees, and where does the money go?
CommonWell is a non-profit trade association that relies on two different fee sources to operate.
One is membership dues, as are common to most not-for-profit trade associations. The dues schedule is based upon an organization’s annual US HIT revenue and provides for the organizational expenses of running the Alliance. A more detailed breakdown of the membership fees is available on our website.
The second fee, a Service Fee, covers the cost of the core services provided by CommonWell to its members to facilitate data exchange and includes the identity management and record locator services. By doing this at the vendor level, CommonWell is able to achieve unprecedented economy of scale gains for streamlining connectivity. Members who provide access to CommonWell to their customers are free to charge (or not charge) for those services as they see fit. As a non-profit trade association, CommonWell has chosen not to mark up these costs to membership.
CommonWell cannot set the fees charged by member companies to their customers. However, our expectation is that those fees will be modest compared to the value of the services delivered and will be assessed in the “commodity service” philosophy espoused in our founding principles. As noted in CommonWell Board Chairman Jeremy Delinsky’s recent blog, athenahealth’s service fee equals about one-tenth of one-percent of their annual revenue.
What’s costly for everyone is the need to build numerous point-to-point interfaces and reinvent the wheel of patient identity management for every exchange scenario. Connecting once to a nationwide network, as the health care industry has done in other instances, has proven to be a better model for widespread data exchange.
Will EHR vendors pay a competitor (McKesson and CommonWell’s IT provider RelayHealth) to exchange information with other systems?
CommonWell Health Alliance delivers the services to the HIT members. RelayHealth is CommonWell’s initial contracted network service provider. As with any service offering that requires hardware and software, the services fees paid by the member to the Alliance help to offset the Alliance’s network service provider investment and compensate them for the costs of providing that service.
I heard it costs $2 million to become a member of CommonWell. What is the ROI for those members?
As noted above, if a vendor chooses to offer CommonWell Services to its clients, the vendor is charged a Service Fee in addition to the Membership dues. The Alliance currently charges an annual Service Fee to cover the cost of the core services. The Service Fee is based upon the Member’s annual HIT revenue. This annual fee allows the Member to onboard an unlimited number of clients onto the CommonWell Network.
CommonWell plans to publically post the Service Fee schedule on our website later this year, but for the vast majority of members, the costs will be far below that amount.
If I’m an Epic shop, what can CommonWell do that I can’t already do through Epic? What are the cost comparisons?
CommonWell provides a national-scale identity management service, nationwide record locator service, and universal connectivity to any vendor that offers the service. A single connection to the CommonWell network will enable providers and the patients they serve to access to their health information at all those various systems and organizations and won’t require peer-to-peer contracting for each provider you need to reach. The identity management and record locator services reduce matching errors and make it seamless for the provider since the patient does not have to remember the places where they have records. We don’t know of any single vendor network that can enable access to a patient’s health data regardless of where they have been seen.
Why would providers want a few publicly traded vendors running a fee-based backbone instead of pushing the government to create freely usable standards available to all vendors?
CommonWell’s founders believed that identity management and record locator services were necessary for effective national-scale query connectivity. Those services have to be organized and paid for by someone and the existing government-related approaches were not committed to delivering those services. Additionally, the founders believed that the vendor community was in the best position to “build in” support for efficient, seamless connectivity. The standards on which CommonWell is based are indeed freely available, but the national scale services that make those standards useful require an organization and appropriate organizational governance.
How are health plans and payers represented in the CommonWell alliance? Medicare’s risk adjustment have always demanded better access to and merging of administrative and clinical data. Now that the ACA demands risk adjustment for commercial population the need for this marriage is even greater. The ability for health plans to better assign risk to their members and the ability for providers to help close care gaps and meet their CMS-mandated obligations for data exchange can be greatly facilitated by providing improved attribution mechanisms for identifying members, providers, and specific encounters. And there should be a common means for plans to provide care gap info.
Right now, CommonWell is made up of 17 health IT vendor organizations, but we encourage membership to any organizations, including payors, that share the association’s values and vision for interoperability. In the early days of the Alliance, we had to remain focused on designing, building, and deploying our core services. These existing services offered by the Alliance are well aligned with offering improved delivery of healthcare for the nation, and that inherently provides benefits for all stakeholders – including patients, providers, and payors.
While this is a great start, we recognize that there are other opportunities to provide value for how healthcare is delivered and CommonWell certainly has an opportunity to build upon the established model to provide additional value. The Alliance welcomes participation from and conversations with payors and other healthcare stakeholders outside of the core EHR community. We have engaged early conversations with several payors that share our vision and understand how crucial interoperability and data liquidity are to improving care.
To complement this, the Alliance has established a process for reviewing member-proposed potential service line extensions and welcomes payors to help determine if the identity management and record locator services offered could add additional value to the patient populations represented by the members in the Alliance, through examples such as care gap closure, without compromising any of our core principles.
What factors convinced Cerner to join the CommonWell and what is Cerner’s play after the three years of free services?
The early days of CommonWell have been focused on getting the network deployed as widely as possible to ensure that meaningful health information is delivered. We understand that the value of the network depends upon how widespread the usage is. Cerner wants to remove as many barriers as possible to help speed deployment. Removing financial barriers to early adoption was a straightforward decision for us. After the initial three years, we expect that the costs associated with the services will be in line with other EDI like transactions and will be considered minimal in comparison to the value a client receives.