Searchable Database Covers Medicare Services Provided by U.S. Doctors

Andrew Kitchenman | April 11, 2014 | Health Care
Data on more than 28,000 New Jersey providers is included, doctors group advises

The federal government this week released detailed data on Medicare spending, including what specific doctors have been paid for procedures, what procedures cost, and how providers are compensated by the government.

The 2012 data was released by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) after a federal judge last year lifted a 1979 injunction that held that doctors’ privacy rights outweighed the public’s right to know how tax dollars are spent. The new ruling was the result of a lawsuit by Dow Jones & Co., The Wall Street Journal’s parent company.

While some doctors received millions of dollars in payments, data analysts advised caution in interpreting the numbers. For example, the payment data includes expenses that doctors incur in providing the services.

In addition to doctors, the database includes information on payments to ambulance squads, medical-testing laboratories, and other healthcare providers.

In announcing the release of the data on Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said that consumers currently have limited information about how doctors and other healthcare professionals practice medicine.

“This data will help fill that gap by offering insight into the Medicare portion of a physician’s practice,” Sebelius said in a statement. “The data released today affords researchers, policymakers, and the public a new window into healthcare spending and physician practice patterns.”

CMS’s handling of the release was criticized by Larry Downs, CEO of the Medical Society of New Jersey (MSNJ), the state’s largest physician group.

“This massive release is without precedent. The release was done without the opportunity to review the data for accuracy,” Downs said in a statement, adding that the society is disappointed that CMS didn’t allow time for a review. “We are also disappointed that the raw data has been released without any context that would inform the public’s evaluation of the data.”

Downs added that the medical society favors transparency on payments, emphasizing that patients should also be aware that a portion of the payment consists of expenses.

“We urge patients not to jump to conclusions about total payments without giving consideration to the type and quantity of services provided,” Downs said, adding that the society believes that many patients would be surprised at how little doctors are reimbursed for many services.