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Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
The Agency for Health Care Policy and Research was reauthorized as the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) in December 1999 under P.L. 106-129, the Healthcare Research and Quality Act of 1999. AHRQ, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the lead agency charged with supporting research designed to improve the quality of health care, reduce its cost, and broaden access to essential services. AHRQ's broad programs of research bring practical, science-based information to medical practitioners, health systems, and to patients/consumers and other health care purchasers and policymakers.
The AHRQ Fiscal Year 2001 performance plan follows the same basic format of previous performance plans. This Summary (Part 1) describes the Agency's mission, strategic goals, and programs and includes the basic frameworks that the Agency uses to accomplish its core business. These frameworks include the Cycle of Research, the Research Pipeline, and the three basic Agency customers, the needs of which determine the direction of Agency programs. The full text (Part 2) then presents the Agency's six performance goals.
The structure of the performance goals and measures is aligned with two of the Agency's three budget lines. The two
budget lines ("Research on Health Care Costs, Quality, and Outcomes" and "Medical Expenditure Panel Survey") are where
the Agency programs are funded.
The third budget line, Program Support, has been removed from the performance goals in the AHRQ Fiscal Year 2001 performance plan. The measures previously reported for Program Support focused on internal management issues for contracts management and information system development. We are dropping the measures because they do not rise to the level of being one of the "critical few" measures that should be reported by the Agency in the GPRA plan. The measures continue to be important, however, and remain in place for internal accountability in the Office of Management Operations Plan and performance plans for the managers and staff.
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Agency Context for Performance Measurement
1. Agency Vision, Mission, and Long-term Goals
The vision of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) is to foster health care research that
helps the American health care system provide access to high quality, cost-effective services; be accountable and
responsive to consumers and purchasers; and improve health status and quality of life.
The Agency's mission is enhance the quality, appropriateness, and effectiveness of health services, and access to such services, through the establishment of a broad base of scientific research and through the promotion of
improvements in clinical and health system practices, including the prevention of diseases and other health conditions.
The Agency promotes health care quality improvement by conducting and supporting health services research that
develops and presents scientific evidence regarding all aspects of health care. Health services research addresses issues
of "organization, delivery, financing, utilization, patient and provider behavior, quality, outcomes, effectiveness and cost. It evaluates both clinical services and the system in which these services are provided. It provides information about the cost of care, as well as its effectiveness, outcomes, efficiency, and quality. It includes studies of the structure, process, and effects of health services for individuals and populations. It addresses both basic and applied research questions, including fundamental aspects of both individual and system behavior and the application of interventions in practice settings." (1)
Research that promotes the improvement of health care quality will be the Agency's highest priority during the next few years. Accordingly, the Agency has identified three strategic goals, each of which will contribute to improving the quality of health care for all Americans.
AHRQ Goal 1. Support Improvements in Health Outcomes. The field of health outcomes research studies the end results of the structure and processes of health care on the health and well-being of patients and populations. (2) Policymakers in the public and private sectors are also concerned with the end results of their investments in health care, whether at the individual, community, or population level. An important component of AHRQ research is the conceptual and methodologic development of tools for measuring outcomes and methods to effectively convey information about outcomes to AHRQ customers. A high priority for AHRQ's outcomes research is conditions that are common, expensive, and/or for which significant variations in practice or opportunities for improvement have been demonstrated. An important research focus will be the type of delivery system or processes by which care is provided and their effects on outcomes.
(1) Eisenberg JM. Health Services Research in a Market-Oriented Health Care System. Health Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 1:98-108, 1998.
(2) Institute of Medicine, 1996.
AHRQ Goal 2. Strengthen Quality Measurement and Improvement. AHRQ's second research goal includes developing and testing measures of quality, as well as studies of the best ways to collect, compare, and communicate these data. A key focus under this goal is developing and implementing the knowledge required to understand and address the causes of medical errors to increase patient safety. To facilitate the use of this information in the health care system, the Agency focuses on research that determines the most effective ways to improve health care quality, including promoting the use of information on quality through a variety of strategies, such as information dissemination and assessing the impact on health care organization and financing.
AHRQ Goal 3. Identify Strategies To Improve Access, Foster Appropriate Use, and Reduce Unnecessary
Expenditures. Adequate access to health care services continues to be a challenge for many Americans. This is particularly so for the poor, the uninsured, members of minority groups, rural residents, and other vulnerable populations. In addition, the changing organization and financing of care has raised new questions about access to a range of health services, including emergency and specialty care. At the same time, examples of inappropriate use of care, including overutilization and misuse of services, continue to be documented. Through ongoing development of nationally representative and more specialized databases, the production of public use data products, and research and analyses conducted by AHRQ staff and outside researchers, the Agency addresses critical policy issues pertaining to the access to, cost, and use of health care.
Use of the Strategic Plan
The Agency's Strategic Plan will serve as the road map for AHRQ activities for the next 3-5 years. After an extensive planning process, the Agency's Strategic Plan was released in December 1998 and has been made widely available for comment. The plan was published in the Federal Register, posted on the Agency Web site, printed in a peer reviewed publication, and mailed to hundreds of organizations soliciting comments and ideas for programmatic investments to achieve the stated mission.
In April 1999, the Agency published a "Request for Ideas" (RFI) soliciting ideas from the Agency's customers and the
general public for priorities in the context of the Strategic Plan. During its three meetings yearly of the National Advisory Council of the Agency, discussions have focused on the priorities articulated in the plan, allowing substantial guidance from the Council to be reflected in the initiatives proposed in this budget submission. Additionally, the Agency received input on various aspects of its research priorities through over 20 expert and user group meetings.
AHRQ assesses the progress made toward achieving each of the goals as part of the annual planning and budget
development process. These assessments are integral to AHRQ's compliance with the Government Performance and
Results Act of 1993 and provide the backdrop against which the next year's activities are planned.
"... The Agency should maintain, in the public domain, the tools that will be needed to assess quality of care...This will not be done by the private sector because they cannot afford the amount of money to update continuously the science and put the quality tools in the public domain."
— Robert Brook, Vice President & Director, RAND Health
"Access, for example, should be defined as having access to the appropriate provider at the appropriate time. [...] it is valuable to understand the issue of access according to the geography of the individual patient."
— Woodrow M. Myers, Jr., Director, Health Care Management, Ford Motor Company
"There is an important need for more research targeted at improving the quality of care for [elderly and disabled] populations."
— David Seckman, Vice President, American Health Care Association
"NACHRI strongly supports your highest priority for research that promotes quality improvement. The work you have done in this area to date is helpful to us and other children's providers."
— Larry A. McAndrews, President & CEO, National Association of
Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions
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2. Organization, Programs, Operations, and Strategies
General program direction and strategic planning is accomplished through the collaboration of the
Office of the Director (with its three administrative offices) and six research centers, which have programmatic
responsibility for portions of the Agency's research portfolio. (Select to access Organization and Contacts.)
The Agency has completed a 12-month process of linking the Agency's planning processes to budget planning and performance management through GPRA. This involved:
- Updating the Agency Strategic Plan using staff and customer input.
- Linking budget development directly to the planning process.
- Implementing strategic and annual operations plans for each office and center.
- Developing individual employee performance plans that link directly to the Agency and office/center plans.
In 1999, each office and center (O/C) created its own strategic and operations plans. The operations plans identified critical success factors and performance measures that clearly illustrated how each O/C would contribute to AHRQ's achieving its strategic and annual GPRA plan goals, as well as internal O/C management goals. From October 1999
through January 2000, the Office and Center Directors and their staffs have been reviewing their accomplishments in
relation to the 1999 operations plans and drafting the 2000 plans. The results of the 1999 reviews contributed
significantly to the Fiscal Year 1999 GPRA Performance Report.
As a result of the increased emphasis on strategic planning, evaluation activities have taken on greater focus.
Evaluations are used to demonstrate the impact of Agency work on the health care system, to test and improve the
usefulness and usability of Agency products, and to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of internal operations. The
results of the evaluation studies are used to make planning, budget, and operations decisions in subsequent years, as
well as for GPRA reporting purposes. Five evaluations of significant AHRQ programs are reported on in Goal 4 of the
Fiscal Year 1999 GPRA Performance Report.
AHRQ Programs, Operations, and Strategies
The main focus of AHRQ research is on the delivery of health care and identifying ways to measure and improve it. Most of the Agency's research portfolio consists of extramurally funded work from leading universities and other research institutions throughout the Nation. The portfolio also contains an impressive body of intramural research. Issues related to the quality, cost and use of, as well as access to, health care are studied through extramural and intramural research. Extramural research is the primary source of studies on outcomes and effectiveness. AHRQ sponsored and conducted research measures the effectiveness of the services that deliver the preventive, diagnostic, and therapeutic care, compares them with existing practice, and evaluates the ability of the health care system to deliver them effectively.
In Fiscal Year 2001, AHRQ will continue its commitment articulated in the Fiscal Year 2000 budget request to "ensure that the knowledge gained through health care research is translated into measurable improvements in the American health system."
Steps taken in Fiscal Year 2000 include a new program to work with funded researchers throughout the country to take important new findings from research and get them in the hands of the organizations and individuals where they can improve clinical practice and health care delivery. Indeed, the organizing principle first articulated in the Fiscal Year 2000 request of a pipeline of investment is now a central planning tool for the Agency and the way we communicate with our customers and partners (including researchers). This pipeline of investment, called the Research Pipeline, follows.
Figure 1. The Research Pipeline
The AHRQ portfolio reflects a "pipeline" of activities that together build the infrastructure, tools, and knowledge for improvements in the American health care system. Select for Figure 1: The Research Pipeline (26 KB).
This pipeline begins with the funding of new research that answers important questions about what works in American health care (New Knowledge on Priority Health Issues).
The second step in the pipeline (New Tools and Talent for a New Century) is focused on more applied research and translates new knowledge into instruments for measurement, databases, informatics, and other applications that can be used to assess and improve care.
The final step of the pipeline is where the first two investments come together by closing the gap between what we know and what we do (Translating Research Into Practice). AHRQ funds research and demonstrations to translate the knowledge and tools into measurable improvements in the care Americans receive.
| Levels of Decisionmaking
|| Clinical Services
|| Health Systems
|| Public Policy
| Access, Cost, & Use
Agency activities begin and end with the end-users of Agency research. AHRQ customers require evidence-based
information to inform health policy decisions. Health policy choices in this context represent three general levels of
- Clinical Policy Decisions—Information is used every day by clinicians, consumers, patients, and health care institutions to make choices about what works, for whom, when, and at what cost.
- Health Care Organizations Policy Decisions—Health plan and system administrators, policymakers, and purchasers are confronted daily by choices on how to improve the health care system's ability to provide access to and deliver high-quality, high-value care.
- Public Policy Decisions—Information is used by policymakers to expand their capability to monitor and evaluate the impact of system changes on outcomes, quality, access, cost, and use of health care and to devise policies designed to improve the performance of the system. These decisions include those made by Federal, State, and local policymakers and those that affect the entire population or certain segments of the public.
AHRQ Cycle of Research
Producing meaningful contributions to the Nation and to research on health care requires continuous activity focused on iterative improvement in priority setting, on developing research initiatives, and on research products and processes. The following research cycle describes the processes AHRQ uses to conduct its ongoing activities in order to make the most productive use of its resources. Select for Figure 2: Cycle of Research (8 KB).
Needs Assessment. Agency activities begin and end with the end-users of Agency research. The research agenda is based on an assessment of gaps in the knowledge base and on the needs of patients, clinicians, institutions, plans, purchasers, and State and Federal policymakers for evidence-based information. Input gained during the needs assessments feeds directly into the research initiatives undertaken by the Agency, as well as the products
developed from research findings to facilitate use in health care.
Knowledge Creation. AHRQ will support and conduct research to produce the next generation of knowledge needed to improve the health care system. Building on the last 10 years of investment in outcomes and health care research, AHRQ will focus on national priority areas for which much remains unknown.
Translation and Dissemination. Simply producing knowledge is not sufficient; findings must be useful and made widely available to practitioners, patients, and other decisionmakers. The Agency will systematically identify priority areas for improving care through integrating findings into practice and will determine the most effective ways of doing this. Additionally, AHRQ will continue to synthesize and translate knowledge into products and tools that support its customers in problem-solving and decisionmaking. It will then actively disseminate the knowledge, products, and tools to appropriate audiences. Effective dissemination involves forming partnerships with other organizations and leveraging resources.
Evaluation. Knowledge development is a continuous process. It includes a feedback loop that depends on evaluation of the research's utility to the end user and impact on health care. In order to assess the ultimate outcomes of AHRQ research, the Agency will place increased emphasis on evaluation of the impact and usefulness of Agency-supported work in health care settings and policymaking. The evaluation activities will include a variety of projects, from smaller, short-term projects that assess process, outputs, and interim outcomes to larger, retrospective projects that assess the ultimate outcomes/impact of AHRQ activities on the health care system.
Health services research has consistently documented the persistent, and at times great, disparities in health status and access to appropriate health care services for certain groups. AHRQ will sponsor and conduct research, evaluations, and demonstrations on health care for priority populations including racial and ethnic minority groups, women, children (including adolescents), the elderly, people with special needs (disabilities, chronic illness, end-of-life issues), low income populations and on health care delivery issues for inner city and rural (including frontier) areas. AHRQ will focus on developing science-based information to address issues of access to care, outcomes, quality, and the cost and use of services for each of these priority populations.
AHRQ assures a strong infrastructure for health services research through investments in training and the support of
young investigators. Within its training activities, AHRQ is committed to address shortages in the number of researchers addressing priority populations such as racial and ethnic minorities, residents of rural areas, and children. AHRQ is also instituting training programs to build research capacity in states that have not traditionally been involved in health service research, but are interested in developing their research infrastructure.
"The education and training of graduate and undergraduate students among are among the most important duties and durable legacies of the research agencies."
—Evaluating Federal Research Programs: Research and the Government Performance and Results Act. Institute of Medicine, 1999
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3. Partnerships and Coordination
AHRQ is not able to accomplish its mission alone. Partnerships formed with the agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services, with other components of the Federal Government, with State and local governments, and with
private-sector organizations play a critical role in enabling the Agency to achieve its goals. The development of
partnerships is practical because it enhances coordination, eliminates unnecessary duplication, and leverages the
Agency's resources. It also meets the mandates of the Agency's reauthorization, P.L. 106-129, the Healthcare Research and Quality Act of 1999, which stresses the need for the Agency to serve as a "science partner" to public and private sector efforts to improve the quality and safety of our health care delivery systems.
Partnerships take many forms. Conceptually, they reflect the Agency's "pipeline of research" and are designed to assist the Agency in achieving all of its goals related to the "cycle of research." Most of the Agency's partnerships are related to:
- The development of new research knowledge—these partnerships can involve identification of research needs and agenda-setting, co-funding of research projects, and efforts that clarify the research niche that AHRQ and its research partners address and the "hand-off" between AHRQ and its research partners.
- The development of tools, measures, and decision support mechanisms—in these partnerships AHRQ helps to develop tools and other mechanisms that enable its partners and customers to use scientific evidence to guide their decisionmaking.
- The translation of research into practice—these partnerships focus on the translation and dissemination of research findings, technical assistance, and evaluation of whether innovations in practice actually improve the quality and safety of the health care delivery system and the best methods for speeding the adoption of knowledge about what works.
Within HHS and the Executive Branch
Development of New Knowledge. In the area of building new research knowledge, the focus of AHRQ's research on identifying ways to improve the delivery of health care as well as on prevention, and health care outcomes, effectiveness, and quality provides an important complement to the National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) focus on the identification of mechanisms of disease and the development of interventions to improve the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease and disability.
Similarly, AHRQ's focus on the general health care delivery system complements the emphasis of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the public health care system and the focus of agencies like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which tend to focus on the more specialized settings in which services tend to be furnished (in this case, substance abuse and mental health services).
This complementary role is reflected in:
- Co-funding individual research projects (e.g. where another research agency may fund the more fundamental research
aspects of a study and AHRQ will fund the effectiveness or cost-effectiveness component).
- Joint research solicitations. Recent examples include:
- Building Interdisciplinary Research Careers in Women's Health (BIRCWH).
- Career Development Programs (involving 14 other institutes/offices).
- Research on the effectiveness and/or cost-effectiveness of child mental health and substance abuse treatment interventions and guideline-based treatment strategies for children, adolescents, and youth in the general health sector (with two NIH Institutes and SAMHSA).
- Research on improved care for those at the end of life (in partnership with 7 NIH institutes and centers).
- AHRQ and CDC staff are working together to ensure that the work of the Task Force on Community Preventive Services, sponsored by CDC, and the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), sponsored by AHRQ, are complementary. Together, the USPSTF Guide to Clinical Preventive Services and the CDC Guide to Community Preventive Services will outline the most effective ways to prevent disease and promote health across all settings, from doctors and nurses offices, to schools, workplaces, community organizations, health organizations, public health departments and state policymakers.
- AHRQ, the Department of Labor, and other agencies participating in the QuIC recently held an expert meeting, Effect of Working Conditions on the Quality of Care, that reviewed existing evidence regarding the role of working conditions in health care institutions and began development of a research agenda that needs to be addressed by multiple departments and agencies.
Development of Tools, Measures, and Decision Support Mechanisms. AHRQ is increasingly working in partnership with other agencies and departments to develop the tools, measures, evidence, and other decision supports they need to carry out their missions. Examples include:
- Undertaking technology assessments on behalf of Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA), which are then used as the basis for coverage decisions for the Medicare program.
- An increasing number of agencies (such as NIH, HCFA, and the Veterans Administration [VA]) are working closely with AHRQ's Evidence-based Practice Centers to develop assessments of existing scientific evidence to guide their work. (For example, an evidence report on "Medical Informatics and Telemedicine Coverage Under the Medicare Program" is under development for HCFA by one of the AHRQ Evidence-based practice Centers.)
- Development of the Consumer Assessment of Heath Plans (CAHPS®). CAHPS® is now being used by Office of Personnel Management (OPM) for Federal employees, States for Medicaid recipients and state employees, and by HCFA for Medicare managed care enrollees. HCFA has now funded the survey twice to approximately 130,000 beneficiaries each time. The results from these surveys are made available to 39 million beneficiaries to help them with their choice of health plan. Select for Figure 3: CAHPS® Medicare Comparison Items (10 KB).
Translation of Research Into Practice. Examples of partnerships to translate research into practice:
- Medicare's Peer Review Organizations have undertaken at least 36 quality improvement projects drawing upon AHRQ's outcomes and effectiveness research findings and the quality measures and methods for enhancing the quality of health care developed by AHRQ.
- AHRQ's Director serves as the Operating Chair of the Quality Interagency Coordination (QuIC) Task Force, composed of all Federal agencies involved in the delivery of health care or the conduct of health care research. The QuIC identifies opportunities for collaboration and coordination among HHS and non-HHS agencies in improving the quality of patient care.
- The United States is partnering with Russia under the U.S. Russian Joint Commission on Economic and Technological
Cooperation. One area of focus is the Access to Quality Health Care priority area where the United States and Russia are involved in projects to improve quality of care by developing measures of clinical practice improvements and by helping clinicians improve primary care practice through the use of evidence-based medicine. AHRQ has a major leadership role in this initiative, working with partners such as CDC, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), SAMHSA, NIH, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) and other non-government partners.
Examples of Private Sector and State Partners
Development of New Knowledge. AHRQ is increasing its efforts to leverage its resources by identifying external partners to co-fund research:
- The most recent example is a grant program on the impacts of public insurance programs and delivery systems on
access to and quality of care for low income children that is being supported jointly by AHRQ and the David and Lucile
- Another ongoing funding partnership, with the American Association of Health Plans Foundation, provides $8.5 million in joint funding to support six research teams that are examining how particular managed care policies and practices—such as protocols governing the referral of patients to medical specialists and arrangements for paying physicians—affect the quality of care for patients living with chronic illnesses.
Development of Tools, Measures, and Decision Support Mechanisms. Partnerships related to the development of tools, measures, evidence, and other decision supports include:
- National Guideline Clearinghouse™. This is a partnership with the American Medical Association and the American Association of Health Plans to operate an Internet Web site that makes evidence-based clinical practice guidelines and related abstract, summary, and comparison materials widely available to health care professionals.
- Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project. This is an ongoing partnerships with 22 State and private data organizations to build a network of standardized databases that can be tapped for use by Federal and State policymakers and private sector decisionmakers.
- National Measures Clearinghouse. AHRQ is sponsoring the development of a National Measures Clearing house in
partnership with public and private measure developers and users such as the American Health Quality Association,
American Hospital Association, Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, and the National
Committee for Quality Assurance.
Translation of Research into Practice. Examples of partnerships to translate research into practice include:
- Fourteen companies and organizations have joined AHRQ in disseminating its Quality Navigational Tool. It is designed to assist individuals apply research findings on quality measures and make major decisions regarding health plans, doctors, treatments, hospitals, and long-term care. Participating companies and organizations include the Midwest Business Group on Health, IBM, United Parcel Service, and the National Consumers League.
- Fourteen organizations/companies have joined AHRQ in disseminating its smoking cessation materials. Disseminating organizations and companies include the American Cancer Society, American Academy of Pediatrics, Michigan Department of Community Health, and the Utah Tobacco Prevention and Control Program.
- Nine companies and organizations are reprinting and disseminating AHRQ's Put Prevention Into Practice materials (for example, the American Association of Family Physicians and the Texas Department of Health).
- The Director or senior staff serve as science advisors to a number of public-private sector initiatives to improve the quality and safety of patient care. Initiatives include:
- The Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations.
- The National Committee on Quality Assurance.
- The American Medical Association.
- The National Patient Safety Foundation.
- The National Forum on Quality Measurement and Reporting.
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4. Summary Fiscal Year 1999 Performance Report: Accountability through Performance Measurement
AHRQ is in the second phase of its strategic planning initiative to fully integrate the Agency's planning processes with budget development and implementation and performance management through GPRA. As described in the full text of the performance plan, this involved updating the Agency strategic plan using staff and customer input, directly linking budget development to the planning process, implementing strategic and annual operations plans for each office and center, and developing individual employee performance plans that link directly to the Agency and office/center plans.
Based on the Agency's experience so far, the major foci for the third phase of the strategic planning initiative will be:
- Improving the linkage between the GPRA indicators and the office and center annual operations plans.
- Clarifying and strengthening Agency performance reporting systems.
- Documenting more thoroughly how the results of the GPRA performance plans are used in the management of the Agency.
One of the strengths of the GPRA plan is its alignment with the cycle of research (needs assessment, creation of new knowledge, translation and dissemination, and evaluation), the quality initiative, and the core Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) activities. This alignment allows the Agency to more readily conduct gap analyses of where we are and where we want to be. The results of these analyses help AHRQ identify where to place further emphasis, where to continue on its current course, and/or where to discontinue an initiative.
Increasingly, within its GPRA annual plans, AHRQ is placing emphasis on:
- The translation and dissemination of research findings, which the Agency refers to as "Translation of Research Into Practice" or TRIP.
- The evaluation of research and products developed by the Agency that are in use in the health care system.
These are two core activities that are critical to AHRQ using its investment in research to change health care and impact the well being of the American public.
AHRQ plans on maintaining the current GPRA goals and objectives for the foreseeable future. The intent of the
measures remains the same from year to year, i.e., to assess current status of important programs. However, because
the Agency's programs are continually moving through the cycle of research, some of the specific measures used under
any one goal will change from year to year to reflect the stage that the programs are in: process stage, output stage, or outcome stage. For instance, in the Fiscal Year 1999 Plan, the Evidence-based Practice Centers (EPCs) are represented with measures under Goal 3 representing translation and dissemination. In Fiscal Year 2000 and Fiscal Year 2001 they are represented under Goal 4 (evaluation) because the Agency will have moved on to assessing the actual use and impact of the EPC products in the health care system.
A summary of AHRQ's annual performance plans' measures for Fiscal Year 1999-Fiscal Year 2001 follows.
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