Medicare doctor payments revealed

A patient’s pill organizer. Ending decades of secrecy, Medicare is showing what the giant healthcare program for seniors pays individual doctors. (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times / September 12, 2013)

The Obama administration is releasing a detailed account Wednesday of $77 billion in government payouts to more than 880,000 healthcare providers nationwide that year. The release of payment records involving doctors has been legally blocked since 1979, but recent court rulings removed those obstacles. No personal information on patients is disclosed.

The two highest-paid doctors listed in the Medicare data are already under government review because of suspected improper billing. They include an ophthalmologist in the retiree haven of West Palm Beach, Fla., who topped the list by taking in more than $26 million to treat fewer than 900 patients. That is 61 times the average Medicare payout of $430,000 for an ophthalmologist.

A Florida cardiologist received $23 million in Medicare payments in 2012, nearly 80 times the average amount for that specialty. One California doctor was in the top 10 nationwide: a Newport Beach oncologist who was paid $11 million that year.

The overwhelming majority of doctors billed the government very modest amounts. Overall, 2% of healthcare providers accounted for 23% of the Medicare fees, the federal data show.

Medicare officials said disclosing physician payment data marks an unprecedented opportunity to make the nation’s healthcare system more transparent for consumers and accountable to taxpayers. Many consumer advocates and employers applauded the move.

“Providing consumers with this information will help them make more informed choices about the care they receive,” Jonathan Blum, Medicare’s principal deputy administrator, said last week. Medicare plans to post the data online.