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The Launch Of Medicare Database Delayed

The largest health care database in the country is not yet available to the public. A court order requiring the federal government to turn over information on 40 million patient cases and 700,000 doctors enclosed in the Medicare database delayed until Oct. 21.

The government won the delay last week; otherwise, the information would have been obtainable last Friday.

The data consists of information submitted to the agency that oversees Medicare, the federal health care program for the elderly, by doctors looking for payment for services they have executed. Once that information becomes public, consumers can assess the outcomes of those services as well as learn the performance and quality of physicians and other providers who executed them.

"Driven by patient choice, the Medicare database can be the beginning of a vital movement in medicine that contributes to higher quality care and lower costs," said Dr. Richard Miller, a professor at Stanford University Medical Center. "This will likely have an effect on everything from elective procedures for non-serious conditions to complex and dangerous treatments such as open-heart surgery and cancer therapy."

Due to a government policy that sought to keep doctors' privacy, the vast Medicare database has been closed off to the public. Last month, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that the federal government must turn over the information to Consumers' Checkbook, a Washington nonprofit. The judge concluded that "a significant public benefit" could be served by releasing the health information. The ruling does not permit patient information or names to be released, only providers.

The government is now making a decision whether to appeal the decision and has until Oct. 21 to decide, or the information will be handed over to Consumers' Checkbook.

The nonprofit compiles ratings of a wide range of service providers and sells the information to individual subscribers. However, Robert Krughoff said his group would make the Medicare data free of charge.

"Our plan is to get the data and create a Web site that would be free to the public so any patient can go to the site and know how many major procedures a doctor has done in the past year, and that would be at no cost," said Mr. Krughoff.

The database is limited to doctors who principally treat Medicare patients, and it will not have information on some doctors, such as pediatricians, who treat children. However, most practices treat Medicare patients, so, regardless of the limits, it is far healthier than any private insurer's records.



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