The Wall Street Journal‘s John Carreyou and Tom McGinty have taken advantage of their paper’s Medicare data stockpile to look at the conflicts of interest and piles of royalty money that drive the popularity of spine fusion treatments whose effectiveness has been disputed. Their work centers on Medtronic, which the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s John Fauber also has written about.
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For surgeons, the financial incentives to perform spine fusions can be strong. Though hospitals often lose money on the procedure when it’s performed on Medicare patients due to the high cost of the implants, the surgeons themselves can get paid as much as $12,000 per surgery.
Complex fusions … are reimbursed by Medicare at a sharply higher rate than decompressions, to account for the elaborate spinal devices used and the longer length of surgery. Complex fusions increased 15-fold among Medicare beneficiaries with spinal stenosis from 2002 to 2007, according to the JAMA study.
A big part of many surgeons’ income lies in their consulting and royalty arrangements with device makers, although disclosure of these arrangements remains piecemeal for now. Medtronic began releasing information about its payments to surgeons on its website in June, after coming under intense scrutiny from Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa).
They’re required to keep some details under wraps, but the WSJ duo still manages to unleash anecdotes, including one about a surgeon who received “between $400,000 and $1.3 million in royalty, consulting and other payments from three spine-device makers.”
For reporters looking to understand the medical issues surrounding these procedures and why these conflicts can be detrimental to patients, see Janet Moore’s work in the Star Tribune.