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Posts Tagged ‘ONC’

In a recent Health Affairs blog, Alex Goldsmith does a back-of-the-envelope analysis of the peculiar economics of healthcare. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in healthcare increased by 1.149 million people from 2007-2011. He contrasts this increase in employment (read increased cost) with declining hospital admissions, low single-digit growth in hospital outpatient volumes and declining physician office visit volume (read declining economic output). A New England Journal of Medicine article published in Oct. 2011 also showed a net percentage decrease in productivity growth (see figure below).

Over this same time period there has been steadily increasing investment in IT for hospitals and doctor’s offices much of it as a result of the HITECH Act that was passed in 2009. Compared to ten years ago, more healthcare workers are doing less healthcare with more information technology. And little over a week ago a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Stephen Soumerai and Ross Koppel pulled no punches, calling the savings to be gained from IT in healthcare “chimerical.” We have known for a long time that providers themselves insist that productivity drops after installing an EHR and there is little evidence to refute such claims and plenty of evidence to support them.

The absence of productivity improvements or cost savings after big IT investments is neither new nor unique to healthcare. Way back in 1987, Nobel laureate and MIT professor Robert Solow famously said, “We see computers everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”  For the next ten years, economists leveled forests (this was a pre-internet time after all) trying to explain away the Solow productivity paradox. While the dotcom boom rendered productivity paradoxes as interesting as bell-bottom pants, few would now contest that increased use of IT drives productivity improvements. It is just a long journey to get there with some successfully surviving the journey and others not. There are plenty of examples in other industry sectors of companies that did not effectively adopt and use IT, ultimately contributing to their downfall.

The EHR Incentive Program and all of the other IT-related ONC and CMS programs have a host of now familiar policy objectives. The fact that IT is at their center says loudly that CMS is trying to coax incremental productivity improvements from a reluctant system.

So where are the productivity improvements in healthcare? While we are only one year into the meaningful use (MU) saga, we would argue that we are seeing three things: 1) the limits to IT as a productivity-boosting panacea, 2) a lag between the investment in IT and a productivity payoff and 3) an existing reimbursement model that does not effectively support IT adoption that is in alignment with meaningful use objectives.

Providers that invest: Most of the current incentives for IT adoption are aimed at the point of the healthcare spear: CMS is willing to pay most frontline clinicians in private practices, clinics and hospitals to adopt IT. These same frontline clinicians, however, are increasingly frustrated and burned-out by the fee-for-service treadmill. Simply getting a primary care physician (PCP) to meaningfully use an EHR will not allow her to suddenly double her patient load. If anything, it will likely decrease office productivity for at least a year as all staff members become familiar with and effective in using an EHR.

Measures like the Stage 2 MU objectives build on that basic EHR to let that same PCP leverage work done in other parts of the healthcare system to deliver more coordinated care. The PCP still can’t double her workload but she might be able to accomplish more in each encounter. In this instance, we see the lag between the investment in a basic EHR and the enhanced productivity of a more interoperable EHR, a time lag measured in years.

Providers that do not invest or under-invest: These incentives are not available to some segments of the provider community (e.g. skilled nursing facilities, behavioral health facilities). The limit is that non-incented providers presumably will invest modestly or not at all in EHRs, interoperable or otherwise. In this instance, the lag may well be a very long time.

Further, incentives are voluntary. Eligible providers can IT-up and take the money — or not. Nearly half of eligible hospitals have collected something under the EHR Incentive Program. The ranks of qualifying EPs, while still low, continue to grow and we will likely see a majority of EPs sign-on to this program.

The Wall Street Journal op-ed claims that ONC and providers are captives of the healthcare IT vendors.  The authors suggest that vendors, presumably in an effort to protect their markets, blocked efforts to make EHRs more interoperable, effectively blunting cost or productivity improvements. This is a fair criticism, probably true, and a clear limit to what we could expect from Stage 1 MU.

However, providers in a pure fee-for-service world have rarely found sufficient value in adoption of EHRs to justify the investment, thus the need for incentives. As the market slowly shifts reimbursement to value-based metrics, the justification to invest in an EHR begins to look more attractive to a PCP. Coupling this with future, MU Stage 2, certified EHR solutions that will better support care coordination across a heterogenous EHR landscape in a given community, the potential for true improvements in productivity appear promising. There is even a potential silver lining for providers that do not invest or under-invest as even the left-behinds have at least have a fax machine and a browser and may begin to enjoy some of the productivity gains of a reformed, networked system.

The network effect that kicks-in over time may like a rising tide, lift all boats. But this is a very slow tide that will rise over many years. Now the question is: How many of those boats have holes in them and will forever rest on the ocean’s bottom or does the tide simply rise too slow and others just pull their boats out of the water?

Note: This post has been authored by our newest analyst, Brian Murphy a former employee of Eclipsys, IBM and others as well as a former analyst for Yankee Group. Find out more about Brian on our About page.

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Yesterday, I was in Washington DC to attend ONC’s Consumer Health IT Summit. While having high hopes for some breathtaking new developments, ultimately walked away disappointed as this event ultimately devolved into a Blue Button promotional event. Now I have nothing wrong with some promotion, after all my background is heavily steeped in marketing. What I do have a problem with, as an analyst, is major hype around any concept, technology, etc. that is not balanced with some serious, thoughtful critique.

There were times when I thought this event felt more like a channeling of a Health 2.0 event with the clarion call of “Give me my damn data” being chanted. At times like that I had to pinch myself to remember, no, I’m in the grand hall of the Hubert Humphrey Building. Of course the multiple, large portraits of past HHS Secretaries hanging from the walls was also a clear reminder of exactly where I was.

But despite some shortcomings, the event was focused around what may be the government’s (VA & CMS) finest contributions to promoting patient engagement – the Blue Button. The Blue Button was first released in 2010 by the VA to allow veterans to gain access and control of their personal health information (PHI). CMS later released their own version of Blue Button that allowed beneficiaries access to their claims data. The VA thought Blue Button would be a success if they saw 25K Vets use this capability. The VA passed that number long ago and now, two short years later, the doors have literally been blown off that original estimate with some one million patients now using Blue Button to gain access and control of their PHI.

That is a phenomenal rate of adoption especially when one considers what they actually have access to.

A Blue Button download does not give one a well formatted easy to read file of their PHI. No a Blue Button download is nothing more than a simple ASCII text file and when you look at such a file dump, it isn’t pretty. Thankfully, ASCII has been around since we were hunting the great wooly mammoth during the ice ages so just about any piece of software (e.g., legacy EHRs and claims data bases) can easily create an ASCII file and developers can likewise take an ASCII file and repurpose that text into something fairly legible.

One company doing just that is Humetrix who I first met at the HDI Forum in June. They were also present at this event where they gave me a quick demo of their latest version of iBlueButton – a nice piece of mHealth software that takes the ASCII file from a Blue Button download and reformats it into a very easy to read and decipher file that a consumer can share with their care team. There is even an iPad version designed specifically for physicians, which gets to my next point.

Whenever I am in the company of physicians, I often ask them how they are coping with the changes taking place and specifically adoption of HIT. Had one such conversation Sunday while I was doing the charity Jimmy Fund Marathon walk for cancer research. On this walk there are always quite a few oncologists and nurses and seeing as you’re walking for a good many miles, plenty of time to talk.

I asked one oncologist about HIT adoption at Dana Farber and meaningful use to which he quickly replied: “Meaningful use is the bane of our existence right now.” So I asked further: What problem could HIT really solve for him? He had a ready answer: “Rather than a new patient showing up with a mound of paper records that I must laboriously review, I want a digital version of a new patient’s record with labs, pathology, images, meds, etc. all readily laid out so I can make a more rapid assessment to define a treatment plan for that patient.”

Now we could wait until all the HIEs are in place, all DURSAs are signed resulting in frictionless data flows between healthcare institutions. We could wait until every certified EHR for Stage Two is deployed and physicians start using Direct messaging. We could also wait for patients to request under Stage Two that their provider transmit records to another (still not sure how complete those records need to be to meet Stage Two). Or we could enable Blue Button, educate the public and let them take direct control of their PHI and share it with whom they see fit. Plenty of options but if we really want to change healthcare, the last one is the most impactful, the most viable, but unfortunately like the others, it will take some time, though likely less than getting those DURSAs signed.

Getting back to yesterday’s event and my disappointment, following is what I would like to see in the future:

Honest and frank discussion on giving patients access to their records. The American Hospital Association was in vehement opposition to the Stage Two rules on patient access to their records. Let’s put them on stage to explain why, to give that contrarian viewpoint, to provide balance.

Enlist providers to discuss the benefits and challenges of giving patients access to their records. How does patient access to records change the conversation of care? How does it impact the workflow of a practice? What fears may physicians have and how do we address them?

Fewer panels of talking heads and more real world perspectives. The event had a wonderful moment when a Vietnam veteran talk about his healthcare challenges and how Blue Button contributed significantly to his self-management. Let see more of that, e.g. a Medicare patient using Blue Button.

And my biggest disappointment of all had nothing to do with this event – it had to do with Stage Two.

If indeed the feds really believe in the Blue Button the same way they believe in Direct then why the h*ll did they not directly put it into the certification criteria for EHRs. Clearly something went amiss and it is unfortunate.

Thankfully, many vendors have stated they will support Blue Button in a forthcoming release including Allscripts, athenahealth, Cerner, Greenway, and many others. Our last HIE report also found just over 25% of vendors profiled intend to support Blue Button in 2012. There is momentum here already, now we just need to on-board physicians to talk to their patients about the value of having access to and control of their PHI for as we move to more capitated models of care, the engaged patient may indeed be the miracle drug to rescue our healthcare system from financial collapse.

Addendum: Have received feedback regarding Stage Two and patient access to their records so let me clarify. Stage Two does indeed grant a patient the ability to access, view and transmit their records. This is incredibly powerful, especially with the push towards standards and the transmitted file being in a CDA standard format. As Keith Boone so clearly articulates, the content package that is transmitted under Stage Two is a fairly complete, summary document of care received and an individual’s health status. But Stage Two does not support an ability to transmit a full and complete longitudinal record. It is my understanding that the Blue Button, at least the instance at the VA, allows a patient to download their complete record thus why I took the argument down the path I did. 

In time it is my hope that the Blue Button becomes a symbol, as Keith puts it, “a verb,” that all will understand instinctively – click this, get your data and move on. Other services will take that data dump, transpose it the way you want it for the purposes you intend. The technology and standards behind it will simply become irrelevant to the user. It just works. Getting there will be the task of the S&I Framework workgroups. I wish them God’s speed in accomplishing that task for the benefit of all citizens.

Many in both the private and public sectors are working hard on that vision – keep up the good work!

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As with the last shuttle mission making its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere yesterday, I am re-entering the world of healthcare IT after an extended family vacation in the wilds of Alaska. No, I did not see John Halamka up there, it is after all a VERY BIG state, but I did get the chance to go completely off-the-grid, a blessed reprise and observe what is one of the more beautiful and still untouched landscapes in the northern hemisphere. Upon finally arriving in Vancouver I made the vow to return, but next time it will be to spend more time in the small coastal towns of the Alaskan peninsula, likely via an expedition kayak, to get up close and personal with the people and environs of this small corner of the world.

After being away for nearly two weeks, it is a challenge to pick up where one left off. Cruising through the reams of email (please excuse any delays in getting back to you I’ll get to your email yet, I promise), trying to catch up on my reading of the various industry rags and tapping twitter I feel pretty comfortable in stating the more things change, the more they stay the same (not exactly the best quote for an analyst to say as we thrive on turmoil…).  That being said, following are a few items that did catch my attention and may look into further:

FDA Releases Proposed mHealth App Regulations
On Tuesday, the FDA finally released guidance on how it intends to regulate mHealth Apps. Having taken a cursory review of these proposed regs, have to say I’m quite impressed as the FDA has struck a careful balance of  applying regulatory review where warranted while allowing plenty of room for innovation in this very young and still immature industry sector.  MobihealthNews has a fine write-up on this story.

WebMD Provides Abysmal Guidance and Tanks
WebMD, which has been seemingly immune to the recession, provided Q2’11 guidance that sent its stock into a tailspin and leading to a very rapid (next day) letter to investors from the Chairman to quell fears. Why is this significant? First, pharma is feeling the effects of the recession and is pulling advertising dollars off the table. Over the last few years, WebMD has been putting virtually all of its “eggs in one basket” – pharma. It appears that the golden goose of pharma is no longer laying golden eggs which will likely have a ripple effect on the multitude of other smaller Health 2.0 like companies whose business models are advertising based. Secondly, once again WebMD is projecting contraction in its “private portal” business. This is, or at least was, the 800lb gorilla in the PHR market for employers and payers. WebMD has milked this cow for about all its worth and do not be surprised if others start aggressively moving in. Cerner is one and we’ll talk about another tomorrow.

Stage 2 Meaningful Use Likely Delayed till 2014
Can’t say we didn’t see this coming as ONC’s advisory board basically recommended such but it does complicate the schedule for incentive payments which, as part of ARRA were meant to create jobs and create those jobs quickly. As the recession continues to drag on, there appears to be an acceptance that getting back to near full employment in this country will not occur quickly. Such acceptance has appeared to bring some rationality as to the rollo-out of EHRs. Choosing, installing, mapping workflow, testing, training and going live with an EHR, let alone meet the various requirements of meaningful use (MU) is no small task and this delay will bring a sigh of relief among many a CIO and eligible professional. But now one has to wonder: What does this mean for Stage Three?  Don’t be surprised if Stage Three gets the ax.

I’m sure there are other bits of news that I missed and welcome your input to help educate this off-the-grid analyst on all the wonderful things he missed as he was trudging through the temperate rain forests of Alaska or battling grizzlies for a share of their salmon (note, grizzlies don’t share).  BTW, this last picture is of one of the “deep forest creatures” you’ll find in that rain forest.

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Yesterday, Chilmark Research participated in the CRG conference, Driving Change Through Managed Care IT from Provider Payments to Quality, which was held in New York City. Despite having a title that no one will be able to remember, the overall theme of the event and presentations therein gave one a bird’s eye view into what payers are thinking as we march forward with healthcare reform and the digitization of the healthcare sector.

A common theme that repeated itself numerous times over the course of the day was the lack of business process maturity in the healthcare sector. Meg McCarthy, EVP of Innovation at Aetna was the first to make this statement citing this issue as arguably the number one challenge for this industry sector to overcome. (McCarthy provided some interesting details on the Medicity acquisition but we’ll save that for a later date.)

Later that day, Jessica Zabbo, Provider Technology Supervisor at RI-BCBS gave a very detailed presentation on her company’s experiences working with providers on the adoption and use of EHRs. Over the last several years RI-BCBS has done a couple of small pilots. In both cases a defining parameter of success was business process maturity. For example, the company did a Patient Centered Medical Home (PCMH) pilot that coupled pay for performance metrics (P4P) with EHR use. Basically P4P measurements were to be recorded and reported through the EHR. One of the key lessons learned was that P4P program success was highly dependent on the EHR being fully implemented and physicians comfortable with its use (process maturity). But in a Catch-22, to successfully incorporate P4P metrics into the EHR requires a very deep understanding of practice focus and workflow. Without that understanding, failure of the P4P program is almost certain.

Thus, it is with some dismay that when one goes to the HHS site to view the recently released ONC Strategic Plan for HIT adoption one sees the figure below:

What’s the problem you ask?

Where is “Process?”

Nowhere in this figure is there any mentioned of business process/workflow. Technology is but a tool. The proceses by which clinicians collect and securely share health information is where the focus needs to be with technology in the backseat, not in the driver’s seat. But this figure goes beyond just flipping the equation, it completely ignores “process” altogether putting technology squarely at the beginning, at the start to all things grand and possible if only clinicians would simply go adopt and use the technology. (Despite some wishful thinking and pronouncements, e.g. “the era of EHRs is upon us” providers are not necessarily chomping at the meaningful use bit.)

Now to ONC’s credit, they are in a bit of a bind here for to admit that business processes and change thereof need to be taken into account would most assuredly require a major rethink of what is truly possible in the next several years as ONC tries to empty the HITECH coffers of its billions and demonstrate to Congress that this program is indeed a success and is creating jobs (remember, this was passed as part of the Stimulus Act and creating jobs was priority numero uno). Unfortunately, being a job creation bill is not conducive to providing the time necessary to create and implement new business processes that are supported by IT. Business process change takes a tremendous amount of forethought before any contract is signed for any EHR, but HITECH works counter to that with aggressive adoption and reimbursement schedules leaving very little time for thoughtfulness in re-architecting processes.

In a prescient way, Chilmark predicted that the issue of process re-engineering would be one of the greatest challenges in adoption and use of EHRs and recommended to ONC in our 2009 comments that ONC consider relaxing the schedule to allow to allow sufficient time for process re-engineering. Unfortunately, it appears that it remains full-speed ahead with HIT driving a weaving HITECH truck down a narrow and winding road.

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This week, the well regarded periodical, Health Affairs published its annual issue that focuses on Healthcare IT (HIT). One of the papers published was authored by ONC, with ONC head, Dr. David Blumenthal listed as a co-author. The paper, The Benefits of Health Information Technology: A Review of the Recent Literature Shows Predominantly Positive Results (think they could have made the title any longer?) ultimately took a close look at 154 studies conducted between July 2007 and February 2010 on the impact of HIT on a number of critical factors including quality and efficiency of care delivered and physician satisfaction.

There has been more than a few questions raised over the last couple of years as to the actual contribution HIT provides and whether or not we are on the right track with the substantial investment this country is making via incentives, grants and various programs to encourage the adoption and use of HIT among physicians and hospitals. Adding to those questions is the current fiscal crisis that this country and virtually all States are facing leading one to wonder, is this the best use of the taxpayers’ precious dollars. It appears that ONC’s sponsorship of this exhaustive study, which as the title states found overall positive contributions of HIT adoption, is an attempt to put those arguments to rest. It sure seems that way to this analyst as there was an unprecedented amount of “media push” coming out of ONC to get the story out including granting exclusive interviews for which Chilmark took advantage of yesterday in a ~15 minute interview with Blumenthal.

Prior to the interview, ONC requested the list of questions I would ask of Dr. Blumenthal. Thinking that 15 minutes was precious little time, I developed three questions that were open ended, but also did not tread into waters which I knew were verboten, e.g. what will be in Stage 2 MU…  The three questions and paraphrased responses based on my notes are provided below:

1) Many of the negative findings appear to involve challenges in adopting CPOE and workflow redesign. How will these findings/revelations influence future policy within ONC and more broadly across HHS?
Blumenthal: We always knew there would be challenges in adoption of HIT and for CPOE we significantly lowered the threshold in Stage One MU requirements. I can not speak to future MU requirements but do believe we are on the right track and it is important to remember that the intent of this law is not for everyone to meet MU requirements.
2) If indeed the “human element” is critical to successful HIT adoption, how will HHS seek to improve that metric in the adoption process?
Blumenthal: This is where the Regional Extension Centers (RECs) will play an important role in the future. RECs will be sharing best practices across the country amongst one another to insure that the human element in the adoption of HIT is minimized. Also, over time as more systems are installed, greater adoption occurs and physicians become more comfortable with their use we will see the human element become less of an issue.
3) What did you personally find as the most interesting/insightful finding of this publication review exercise?
Blumenthal: I was pleasantly surprised that the literature review supported positive outcomes as the result of the adoption of HIT across so many dimensions, particularly gains in efficiency.
Going through those questions actually went more quickly than I expected so I tossed in one more:
4) Usability of HIT solutions (EHR) remains an issue and Chuck Friedman of your office presented at HIMSS’11 that ONC, along with NIST were going to dig deeper into this issue. What will be ONC’s role?
Blumenthal: The challenge of usability is very real. I have head from many physicians, ‘I wish the computer worked for me and I didn’t work for the computer.’ Oftentimes, physicians do not do enough due diligence before buying a solution and do not know fully what they are getting until it is fully installed. EHRs are also very complicated products so determining what one might end up with is not always readily apparent in an initial review of a product. We hope to shed some sunshine on true usability. ONC itself will not ultimately be doing the testing, we will look to others (editor’s note: he’s likely certifying bodies such as CCHIT, Drummond, Surescripts, etc.).
In closing, I have a ton of respect for Dr. Blumenthal. The job he was given when he joined HHS two years ago was monumental. He has put in a Herculean effort to bring us to where we are today and I hope, I pray, that his successor will be able to carry the baton forward with such skill.

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The organization that Chilmark Research has had, at times, a trying relationship with, CCHIT, otherwise known as the Certification Commission for Health Information Technology has appointed a dear friend, Dr. Karen Bell as its new leader.

Dr. Bell, who I first met while doing research on the PHR market, was instrumental in having me present to then Sec. Leavitt on consumer-facing healthcare technology trends – still one of the highlights of my relatively short career as a healthcare industry analyst.  Since that presentation in 2008, my relationship with Dr. Bell has deepened and she has been one of several key mentors who have assisted me in understanding the healthcare IT market.

So, now that Dr. Bell has accepted this position to take over the reigns at CCHIT immediately, what might we expect:

Dr. Bell knows Washington DC and HHS quite well from her many years there.  She is effective in a highly politicized environment and will be able to effectively lead CCHIT through that political minefield.

She also knows the issues and is fairly competent on the technical side of the fence, though certainly not a coder.  Dr. Bell may be one of the better choices for CCHIT as she can advocate for this organization at a time when many still call into question its very existence.  Of course, that existence has been somewhat guaranteed by ARRA legislative language (was this put in by HIMSS/CCHIT lobbying efforts?) that states organizations will receive incentive reimbursement for “meaningful use of certified EHRs“.

Dr. Bell will put up a Chinese Wall between CCHIT and the HIT vendor organization, HIMSS.  She is fully aware of the perceived conflicts of interest between CCHIT and HIMSS and will seek to create some distance between these two organizations.

A strong advocate of consumer control of PHI, interoperability of EHRs, and the need for “open” HIE platforms/apps one can expect Dr. Bell to put extra emphasis on these issues at CCHIT within the context of certification requirements.  This actually works out just fine with HHS as that is just what they are looking to foster with ARRA funding.

But what is less clear about Dr. Bell’s future role at CCHIT is how she will lead this organization forward in bringing together those that truly know HIT (reaching beyond the vendor community), the challenges of adoption (e.g., workflow), the cumbersomeness of many apps (plenty of them already having been blessed in the past by CCHIT), the need to create a certification structure and pricing model that fosters innovation rather than stunts it (CCHIT certification is still too expensive for many young, innovative companies) and finally, insuring that CCHIT does not over-reach (as it was doing under Mark Leavitt’s leadership) and focus where it can make the most meaningful impact.

This is a very tall order for anyone and while I still question even the very existence of CCHIT (have yet to see any demonstrable proof that CCHIT certification has moved the EHR/EMR adoption needle in any statistically meaningful way), I do have faith in Dr. Bell.  If anyone can right this listing ship, it is her at the tiller.

Congratulations Dr. Bell and may you see smooth sailing in the not so distant future.

Appendix:

Anthony Guerra of HealthSystemCIO has a podcast interview with Dr. Bell now up on his website.

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One of the thornier issues regarding the establishment of public Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) is how to manage consumer consent of personal health information (PHI) sharing.  Today, there is no single standard approach across the US.  Some states have an opt-in process, others an opt-out.  Granularity of data shared, use cases for data sharing, etc. also vary widely from state to state.  These are just some of the findings of an extensive report (92 pgs) that was published this week by HHS’s Office of the National Coordinator (ONC), the ones responsible for funding the multitude of state-led HIEs under ARRA as well as the National Health Information Network (NHIN).

The report looks at the consumer consent policies (and challenges to implement) in eight states as well as three countries based on interviews and an extensive amount of secondary research.  While a tad long, there is some good information tucked inside the report if one spends the time to dig it out.  A good place to start is the Appendix that provides an overview of the consumer consent policies in the various states (HIEs) profiled.

Do not be too surprised if findings and conclusions of this report end up directing future policy, particularly as it pertains to the NHIN as it struggles to define an overarching common data use agreement and self governance model for the sharing of PHI.

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