The CMS is accepting public comments on the question until early next month. The request for comment on the topic says public interest in the information has increased given the major expansion in the Medicare program and the greater impact of fraud, waste and abuse on the program.
Proponents of publishing the dataset say it could be used to ferret out unusual activity that could point to fraud and to inform patients about which providers have enough experience with specific procedures to be considered reliable. The chief barrier is physician privacy—specifically, that showing how much individual practitioners earned from Medicare could violate their privacy rights.
Dr. Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, urged the agency to find a way to protect physician privacy while putting the data in the hands of “entities that are reasonably experienced with handling data and will partner with CMS in the common goal of achieving high-value care in the public and private sectors.”
Her letter cited several examples of research initiatives that pool data to analyze cost and use trends in healthcare that could become more effective if they had Medicare statistics on individual doctors. She noted that the CMS could address physician concerns by producing private reports for doctors that could be fact-checked before public release.
This month the Association of Health Care Journalists submitted comments calling for full public release of the data.
“The value of such information to the public far outweighs any privacy claims of physicians,” says the letter signed by Executive Director Len Bruzzese (PDF). “As long as patient confidentiality is protected, we see no reason why taxpayers should not know how individual physicians are spending public dollars.”
The American Medical Association and the Florida Medical Association have fought to block any such release for decades, starting with a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Jacksonville, Fla., that resulted in a 1979 permanent injunction barring the data from becoming public.
On May 31, a federal judge tossed out the 34-year-old order, but handed the Obama administration a new legal question at the same time: Should the privacy exceptions in the Freedom of Information Act bar the release, now that the Florida injunction no longer applies?
The CMS has not announced a timeline for resolving the issue.
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