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News of the Day ... In Perspective

10/05/2007

Ruling overturns government privacy policy on doctors’ data

A decades-old privacy policy has prevented the release of information on doctors from the Medicare claims data base, the “mother lode” of information concerning adult patients.

As a result of a lawsuit brought by Consumers’ Checkbook, U.S. district judge Emmet G. Sullivan of Washington, D.C., has ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to turn over the data by Sept 21.

While physicians fear that the information could be used to micromanage the practice of medicine, employers, insurers, and consumers groups have pressured the government to open the files on individual doctors. They claim that the information will permit consumers to choose more experienced doctors, to assess quality of care, to learn who orders prudent tests or who runs up the bill with duplicative tests and unnecessary hospitalizations.

Doctors worry that Medicare files do not account for severity of cases.

HHS is considering whether to appeal the decision. Both President Bush and HHS Secretary Leavitt have campaigned for greater openness and consumer empowerment.

While Consumers’ Checkbook sought access to data on procedures performed in Washington, D.C., Illinois, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington state, the group has already filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the same data from all other states (Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Los Angeles Times 8/30/07).

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) introduced legislation in June to make Medicare data available to research organizations. Researchers under current policies cannot identify individual doctors.

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