Public gains access to Medicare physician data

A federal judge's decision to end a 33-year ban on public access to a confidential database of Medicare insurance claims means patients can find out how much Medicare paid their doctors and may open the door to closer scrutiny of how much physicians charge for their services.

The injunction was put in place in 1979 after a federal court in Florida ruled in favor of the American Medical Association's argument that physicians' right to privacy outweighed the public's interest in how much tax dollars were spent on the program, The Wall Street Journal reports.

But WSJ's parent company, Dow Jones & Co., challenged the injunction in 2011 after the WSJ published a series of articles illustrating how the information could expose fraud and abuse within the Medicare program. U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard, in a ruling issued Friday, sided with Dow Jones, stating that case law narrowed the scope of the Privacy Act over the past 30 years and no longer warranted a broad injunction.

The ruling doesn't mean Medicare payments made to individual physicians will automatically be posted online, according to Medscape Today. Requests must be made under the Freedom of Information Act and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services could grant or deny requests on a case-by-case basis.

It's unclear whether the AMA will appeal the decision. But AMA President-Elect Ardis Dee Hoven, M.D, was quoted in Medscape stating her group "is considering its options on how best to continue to defend the personal privacy interests of all physicians."

To learn more:
- read the WJS article
- check out the Medscape report