AHCJ urges government to release Medicare payment data

Charles Ornstein

About Charles Ornstein

Charles Ornstein is a senior reporter with ProPublica in New York. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer is a member and past president of the Association of Health Care Journalists' board of directors and a member of its Right to Know Committee.

AHCJ’s board of directors called on the federal government to release data on physician payments and utilization of services in the Medicare program.

In a letter sent Tuesday (PDF) to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the board said the release of the information is “long overdue.”

“The value of such information to the public far outweighs any privacy claims of physicians,” said the letter, signed by AHCJ executive director Len Bruzzese. “As long as patient confidentiality is protected, we see no reason why taxpayers should not know how individual physicians are spending public dollars.”

The letter came in response to CMS’ call for comments last month about whether and how it should release data on physician spending in Medicare Part B, the outpatient component of the program. A U.S. District Court in Florida overturned a 1979 injunction that had blocked the public release of data identifying payments to individual doctors. Dow Jones, which publishes The Wall Street Journal, challenged the injunction.

“The U.S. District Court was correct in lifting the 1979 injunction in response to dramatic changes in the health care landscape over the past three decades,” AHCJ’s letter said. “Beyond that, we believe an informed public makes better health care decisions.”

AHCJ cited stories by The Wall Street Journal and the Center for Public Integrity as examples of how reporters can use physician claims data for stories in the public interest. But it said those stories would have had wider resonance if the organizations were able to name physicians and allow members of the public to look up their own doctors.

AHCJ’s letter was the second to CMS recently. Last month, the group called upon the agency (PDF) to ensure that its release of data under the Physician Payment Sunshine Act was useful for reporters. The Sunshine Act requires all pharmaceutical and medical device companies to publicly report their payments to physicians. While the data set contemplated by CMS will include names and addresses, AHCJ encouraged the agency to also include unique identifiers so that individuals with the same name would not be incorrectly aggregated. It cited as an example family members working at the same address.

“We believe CMS shares our concern for accuracy both in reporting by companies and in subsequent reporting by journalists. Adding a mechanism for unique identifiers would go a long way toward preventing mistakes,” said an Aug. 19 letter, also signed by Bruzzese on the board’s behalf.Health Data Journalism Workshop

As CMS contemplates releasing additional data, AHCJ will continue to update its online data resources. Reporters interested in using health care data should consider attending AHCJ’s upcoming Health Data Journalism Workshop, to be Oct. 3-4 in Anaheim, Calif.

Leave a Reply