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Reflections: Summer 2021 CMS Convergence
Elkridge, MD – Baltimore summer traditions include trips down-the-ocean, large 4th of July celebrations, watching the Orioles lose almost daily, spending half of one’s paycheck on a bushel of crabs and making regular trips to the nearest snowball stand or ice cream parlor. For the CMS vendor community, the Agency’s Convergence Conference is also a Baltimore summer ritual not to be missed.
The Convergence Conference in the pre-pandemic days was a unique opportunity for the CMS IT leadership and staff to discuss key priorities with the vendor community. The extended family gathering allowed vendors to hear from some of the CMS Centers and Office IT leads and gave contractors a chance to do live demos to CMS staff in a crowded, hot, but vibrant environment. Last year’s event was virtual because of COVID-19 and lacked the energy of past Convergence gatherings but was still informative and well-attended. This year the Conference was again virtual and ran into stiff competition with both HIMSS ’21 and the MESC (National Medicaid IT Conference) competing for vendor hearts and minds during the same week.
As someone who has worked as both a vendor and government official, it strikes me that both sides are missing opportunities to educate each other at Convergence.
From the CMS perspective:
As I said many times when I worked there — the Agency IT leadership wants the vendor community to step up and help them solve problems or at least assist CMS to better meet the tremendous challenges of running the largest payer, regulator, and influencer in US Healthcare. Unfortunately, too many in the vendor community continue to focus on showcasing their capabilities, not problem-solving. Many of the white papers and videos produced for the conference amounted to little more than pure sales pitches or as I would say as a government official, “trash-ready material.” Bring some vision to the table and demonstrate innovative ways to improve the Agency and help them serve their beneficiaries and other stakeholders better. Provide examples from CMS or other agencies, where you have innovated and truly helped solve key mission challenges. Now that I’ve become a recent Medicare beneficiary, I have had to deal with the program’s shortcomings on a personal level and can tell you that there is ample opportunity for improvement.
I appreciate you hosting this event each year, but where were the key Centers, besides CCSQ? Does anyone in the vendor community really care about the new procurement system? You have a great opportunity to educate and inform.
Here are some ideas to consider for Convergence ’22:
Get input beforehand from attendees about what they want to hear about and develop a program that reflects that.
Bring in a respected and knowledgeable political appointee to describe the larger CMS vision under this Administration. Bobby Saxon did a good job of painting the Agency technology vision but his presentation would have been better if he could have given more specificity describing where progress has occurred since his opening presentations at the last two Convergence Conferences. For example, last year he spoke about the data strategy he was developing. Was that ever completed and how has progress been against key milestones?
Get commitments from all the key CMS IT Center/Office leaders to participate and do big picture presentations for each organization, like Mark Plaugher did for CCSQ. Mark laid out the vision, strategy, progress, challenges, and future path for CCSQ in a way that was clear, succinct, and provided a good roadmap for the vendor community. Similar presentations from CPI, CMCS, OC, CCIIO, CMMI would have provided some great insights and perspective especially if they tied back to the Agency-wide enterprise technology vision.
Most of the CMS messaging repeated themes from previous Convergence Conferences-leveraging best practices, documenting lessons learned, cloud first, data as an asset, AI is gathering momentum etc. Now is a good time to shift the vision discussion to present real case studies that are implementing the vision. Name vendors who have stepped up to the plate to deliver quality, innovation, and yes, transformation. Convergence has been around 5 years now, which is ample time to gather specific success stories and direction shifts.
Bring in the head of OAGM to talk more about major acquisition plans beyond what is provided in the monthly opportunity forecasts and various NCMA talks. This is your conference and a unique occasion to present big picture strategies and priorities to hundreds of vendors at the major Agency IT event. For example, one of the critical challenges faced by many CMS contractors is moving from a set aside status to becoming a company competing in the full and open market. It would be helpful for CMS contracting officials to discuss this issue at a Convergence Conference and describe how the Agency could help companies with the transition to mid-tier. Small companies are the IT backbone and innovation engine of the Agency in many ways and yet most are gone after a short period of time because they have trouble adjusting to the larger company procurement environment.
I understand that my critique may come across as overly critical and I do recognize that COVID has brought a unique set of challenges to the Agency IT team, contractors, and the event planners. My belief is that Converegence should be the marquee annual event for the CMS leadership to lay out to the contractor community their current IT vision, progress, challenges, and strategies. The current environment is very difficult, but many government employees and contractors work tirelessly to help CMS to continue to meet the ever-growing mission of the Agency.
Convergence should be an event to celebrate the progress, describe the challenges, and continue to build on the great CMS industry/government partnerships that have sustained and enriched the Agency over the years.
In closing, I want to thank CMS for the excellent job that they have done to provide numerous opportunities to engage the Contractors in public sessions. More than most Federal Agencies, they truly provide timely information and hold regular events to help vendors understand CMS and individual organization priorities and initiatives. I am looking forward to a bigger and better Convergence ’22, and to seeing everyone in person again.