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AMA News Room

April 8, 2014

AMA Guide to Media Reporting on CMS’ Medicare Physician Claims Data

The American Medical Association (AMA) is committed to transparency and supports the release of data that can help improve quality of care. For that reason, the AMA believes that certain safeguards are needed to ensure that accurate information is presented to the public. With CMS releasing data without pre-verification by physicians to ensure accuracy, members of the media will be integral to verification before publication.

The AMA highly recommends that media consider the following concerns about the limitations of Medicare claims data before utilizing it in potential stories or publications. Medicare claims data is complex and can be confusing and the manner in which CMS is broadly releasing physician claims data, without context, can lead to inaccuracies, misinterpretations and false conclusions.

In order to ensure that the information reported is helpful, accurate and complete, media should take into account the following:

  1. Errors: Data being released may contain errors because there is currently no mechanism for physicians and other providers to review and correct their information.
  2. Quality: The data does not include explicit information on quality of care provided or quality measurement. It solely focuses on payment and utilization of services so it cannot be used to evaluate the value of care provided. 
  3. Number of Services: Residents, physician assistants, nurse practitioners and others under a physician's supervision can all file claims under that physician's National Provider Identifier (NPI); the data may not properly detail the services performed and who performed them. Additionally, there are several instances in which it can appear that two surgical procedures were done when in fact there was only one. For example, when there are co-surgeons or an assistant at surgery, the procedure should be counted as only one surgery, not two.   
  4. Charges vs. Payment: Medicare and other payers pay fixed prices for services based on fee schedules; therefore the amount paid to physicians is generally far less than what was charged and is not an accurate portrayal of payment.
  5. Patient population: The data being released is an incomplete representation of the services physicians provide, as it is not risk adjusted. Additionally, it does not include care for private insurance patients or Medicaid beneficiaries, making it a limited view of the patients a physician cares for. 
  6. Site of service: Payment amounts vary based on where the service was provided.  To reflect a difference in practice costs, Medicare pays physicians less for services provided in a hospital outpatient department than for services in the physician's office.  However, for services in the outpatient department, another payment is made to the facility to cover its practice costs so that, in reality, the total costs to Medicare and to the patient may be higher when a service is provided in a facility setting.
  7. Provider comparisons: There is a lack of specificity in specialty descriptions and practice types in the data, which could be misleading when making comparisons between physicians. In some cases, physicians who appear to have the same specialty can serve very different types of patients, thus impacting the mix of services provided.
  8. Missing information: The data does not account for patient mix or demographics. It also does not point out that a significant share of Medicare payments is used to cover such costs as office overhead, employee salaries, supplies and equipment. To make matters worse, the data includes reimbursements for physician-administered drugs but fails to explain that these payments are compensation for the price of the drugs themselves, many of which are very expensive and are required to treat such serious conditions as cancer and macular degeneration.
  9. Coding and billing changes:  Any analysis using the data should take into account changes in Medicare's coding and billing rules that may be different over time and across regions of the country (e.g., local coverage determinations). 

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Stephanie Johnson
AMA Media & Editorial
(312) 464-5921

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