Obama Administration Takes Big Step Towards Making Health Care More Transparent

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The Obama administration on Wednesday announced in a letter to the American Medical Association (AMA) that it will release Medicare payment data for nearly one million physicians for the first time in American history in an effort to make U.S. health care more transparent and encourage consumers to make better choices.

“We plan to provide the public unprecedented access to information about the number and type of health care services that individual physicians and certain other health care professionals delivered in 2012, and the amount Medicare paid them for those services,” wrote Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) principal Deputy Administrator Jonathan Blum in a blog post. “Providing consumers with this information will help them make more informed choices about the care they receive.”

The move builds on CMS’ decision last spring to release data on what more than 3,000 hospitals charge their patients for the most common inpatient services. Those data’s release highlighted the reality that American health care prices are completely arbitrary, with some hospitals charging more than 10 times for the same service as other hospitals in the same region do.

Blum says that the doctor payment data can empower consumers by giving them another tool to assess whether or not they’re getting the most efficient care. “Data like these can shine a light on how care is delivered in the Medicare program,” he wrote. “They can help consumers compare the services provided and payments received by individual health care providers. Businesses and consumers alike can use these data to drive decision-making and reward quality, cost-effective care.”

Doctors’ groups warned that the planned data release is far too broad and could actually improperly bias patients against quality physicians. “The AMA is concerned that CMS’ broad approach to releasing physician payment data will mislead the public into making inappropriate and potentially harmful treatment decisions and will result in unwarranted bias against physicians that can destroy careers,” said AMA president Dr. Ardis Dee Hoven in a statemet.

Health care price transparency has become an increasingly important issue as the Affordable Care Act is implemented. The health law contains provisions that penalize medical providers who perform too many unnecessary tests or don’t see a significant improvement in patient wellness. Some states are also working to make health care price and insurance payment data more readily available. For instance, North Carolina passed a law requiring the state’s hospitals to disclose how much they charge and how much various insurance companies pay them for 140 common medical procedures.