Senators press for transparency with Medicare database

A "commanding tool" for controlling healthcare costs and improving quality--the Medicare claims database--should be open and freely accessible to the public, two senators recently wrote in an opinion piece published by Politico.

Last month Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced legislation to make a searchable Medicare payment database available for free online. They want to give the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services a deadline of  Dec. 31, 2014, to make it happen.

"Taxpayers have a right to see how their dollars are being spent," Grassley said when the bill was announced. "There shouldn't be a special exception for hard-earned dollars that happen to be spent through Medicare."

Despite a recent federal judge's ruling favoring greater public access, the senators said that the public, press or watchdogs have to wade through too much bureaucracy to effectively use the data. Greater transparency, they said, will allow people to easily find out what Medicare pays for a procedure, and to compare prices between doctors' offices, hospitals and other health care providers.

In addition, they said, such data will enable consumer groups and other advocates to assess the quality of care and researchers to could examine regional health disparities and identify ways to address them.

Concern about shedding light on individual practice patterns of doctors and hospitals should be balanced with the responsibilities to society, as a whole, and the benefits of transparency, they said. A recent analysis by the Office of the Inspector General, for instance, found that Medicare could have saved $910 million on lab test payments if it paid providers at the lowest established rate in each geographic area.

Quality incentives and care coordination were among the strategies to improve Medicare proposed in a report from the Bipartisan Policy Center Health Care Cost Containment Initiative.

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