Medicare’s Physician Payment “Data Dump”: Don’t Stop Now

In April, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) dumped a treasure trove of raw data into the public domain: The Medicare Provider Utilization and Payment Data: Physician and Other Supplier Public Use File.

Resisted for years by organized medicine, this release publicizes a dataset of Medicare payments to doctors by name. The data released are for 2012, and CMS plans to release more data in the future.

The New York Times was well prepared for the data dump, and has created an easily navigable website where subscribers can enter any doctor’s name and find out how much he earned from Medicare in 2012. Doctors whose Medicare revenue was in the millions of dollars found TV cameras at their offices the next morning, and had microphones stuck in front of their faces. The data continue to be analyzed, with interesting results: ProPublica has concluded that 1,800 providers billed the most expensive rate for any given procedure at least 90 percent of the time, although those rates are for only the most complex cases.

Needless to say, organized medicine is freaking out. The American Medical Association (AMA) has written an open letter to CMS, complaining that “untrained observers nonetheless are using the data to make flawed regional, specialty, or other comparisons that CMS should do more to discourage.” Instead of releasing a multitude of raw data, the AMA would like the government “to develop and refine a more selective data set…”

The opposite is called for. Instead of AMA-guided censorship of the Medicare payment data, more should be released. The AMA complains that the dataset is missing many thousands of billing codes. Okay, bring on the other datasets.

These data are the taxpayers’ property. Once released to the public, anyone can analyze and present them as they prefer. Similarly, every weather service uses the same (taxpayer-funded) data from that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s satellites, stations, and buoys. There is nothing preventing the AMA from setting up a website, as the New York Times has done, presenting this data in a way that it believes serves the public interest.

The Obama administration has done very little that is positive in health care. Its commitment to releasing data that shows us who earns the money that taxpayers spend on Medicare is to be congratulated.

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For the pivotal alternative to Obamacare, please see the Independent Institute’s widely acclaimed book: Priceless: Curing the Healthcare Crisis, by John C. Goodman.

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