Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Physician Medicare Data Will Not Be Transparent

An appeals court just rejected a request to allow disclosure of Medicare data related to physician services. This is not a helpful ruling for those interested in increasing transparency of quality and costs in healthcare.

The Doctors: The American Medical Association representing the doctors asserts that doctors have a right to privacy so the data should remain private. And by the way, the information isn't perfect, so we wouldn't want to confuse consumers with information they probably can't understand.

The Government: The government has made many statements and taken actions to increase transparency (the new administration as upped the volume on 'open government'), yet Health and Human Services - HHS- stood in opposition to disclosure of this information. This is in contrast to their use of Medicare data disclosures for hospitals which they provide here.

The Judges: The lower court had ruled for disclosure of the information. The new court ruled that freedom-of-information laws are mainly intended to shed light on government operations, not the workings of private businesses. The government spends billions of dollars on healthcare services representing one of the larger and faster growing portions of the overall budget. It is hard to miss the connection to the government's operations.

Next Steps: The nonprofit Consumers' Checkbook group who brought the case is considering an appeal.

When a person contracts with the government, they might expect the terms of those dealings to be made open to the public. If a physician accepts payment from the public, does the public have a right to know about those payments? And do we really think information must be perfect before we disclose it? Do we want our government deciding which information we should get?

Unfortunately, the ruling goes against the trends towards increased transparency in healthcare. Let's hope the issue doesn't end here.

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