Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, March 29, 2010

Morse uses stats to improve quality of health care

For Debra (Stone) Morse, the numbers add up.

The 1996 graduate is one of 64 people in the United States certified as an auditor for the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA)-Certified Healthcare Effectiveness Data and Information Set (HEDIS). She passed the examination to be a HEDIS compliance auditor in October 2009.


Debra Morse became a medical economics analyst and consultant for APS Healthcare in Madison in August 2010. She works on treatment gap analyses for state Medicaid programs across the country, in addition to business development work.

An expert on health-care quality improvement and performance measurement, Morse works for Madison-based MetaStar Inc., one of 10 organizations NCQA licenses to conduct HEDIS compliance audits. More than 90 percent of America's health plans use HEDIS to measure performance on important dimensions of care and service. "A good way to describe what I do is this: You know when you pass a billboard that says, 'ABC HMO vaccinates 89% of all children?' I'm the one that says those types of numbers are correct," Morse says.  She travels throughout the United States to evaluate and assist HMOs and other managed care organizations with the annual HEDIS validation and reporting process.

That role is quite a contrast to Morse's experience at La Follette, where she avoided the policy analysis track. "I hated math and anything related to it," she says, adding that her bachelor's degree was in French and international relations. Her courses in the latter field introduced her to social policy. Morse worked a year as finance secretary for the City of Janesville, and a co-worker recommended she look into getting a master's degree in public affairs.

After graduating from La Follette and working few years at the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services as a policy analyst for Medicaid and long-term care programs, Morse has started at MetaStar in 2000. During her first seven years as a health-care programmer analyst, her clients included physician offices, hospitals, health-care associations, nursing homes, home health agencies, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services, various managed-care and health-maintenance organizations, and private sector clients.  "It was a great job to have early in my career to expose me to the many areas of health care and quality improvement," Morse says. "It was a never-ending consulting job with new clients and contracts every few months.  There was no time to be bored."

In addition to being a certified HEDIS compliance auditor, in 2004 Morse became a certified professional in health-care quality.  

For many years, Morse has taught health-care workers, including nurses, home-health aides, nursing home directors and social workers how to use simple statistics to improve quality and to prepare to take the exam to become a certified professional in health-care quality.  This career path might surprise her public affairs classmates. "Anyone who went through the La Follette program with me will be surprised to learn that I often teach health-care providers how to use data analysis and statistical techniques related to improving the quality of care they provide to their patients," Morse says. "I am thankful to this day that I took Maria Cancian's public policy statistics course during my second year at La Follette. I remember the tough reading, the even more difficult algorithms, the seemingly endless homework and my frustration with trying to wrap my head around the various statistical techniques."

Morse finds that many of her students disliked and feared math and statistics. "I told students that if I, as a French major, could understand basic statistical techniques, then they could do the same, which would help them to improve the care they provide to their patients," she says.

The La Follette School made all this possible, Morse says. "Professor Cancian's class gave me a strong set of skills that built a 'technical' foundation that led me down paths in my career I would not have envisioned for myself."

— updated September 7, 2010