The Wall Street Journal announced today that it's suing for access to data on payments that doctors receive from Medicare, which has been exempt from public disclosure thanks to a 1979 court case won by the American Medical Association. The Journal argues that absent data on the payments, it's impossible for journalists or members of the public to tell which doctors are billing the system improperly. "It's time to overturn an injunction that, for decades, has allowed some doctors to defraud Medicare free from public scrutiny," Mark Jackson, the counsel for Dow Jones, the Journal's immediate parent, said.
The Journal stresses that no patient-specific information will be compromised if the payment data is released.
The payments data isn't the only information that Medicare and the Department of Health and Human Services keeps secret from the general public. As we documented in our Data Mine series, done with our partners at the Center for Public Integrity, HHS maintains the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), which includes information on malpractice payments, license revocations and loss of clinical privileges for physicians, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, physical therapists and other professionals. “The NPDB is primarily an alert or flagging system intended to facilitate a comprehensive review of health care practitioners' professional credentials,” says the Department of Health and Human Services, which maintains it.
Obviously, if you're looking for a doctor, having access to the NPDB would be invaluable. But while health insurance companies, hospitals, medical groups, professional licensing boards, malpractice insurance companies and state health officials can access it, the public can't.