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Reporters Committee, media organizations ask HHS to release Medicare physician billing data online

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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with 21 news media organizations and journalism associations, have filed comments…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, along with 21 news media organizations and journalism associations, have filed comments asking the Department of Health and Human Services to proactively post granular datasets about “incredibly newsworthy” Medicare physician payments online.

The call for data release comes in response to an HHS request for comments as it considers policy changes by its Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. A 1979 injunction, which was lifted in May after a legal challenge by Dow Jones & Co. and a medical data consulting firm prevented the release of Medicare physician payment information.

“As with other similar federal spending, the idea that doctors accepting billions of dollars in Medicare and Medicaid benefits have a privacy interest in related billing records is simply an outdated view,” the Reporters Committee argued. “Given the scope of federal health programs and the potential for abuse, the public is naturally curious about how the government is administering and monitoring such programs.”

The Reporters Committee comments additionally argued that online disclosure is essential because of: the exponential growth in Medicare claims and the concurrent potential for fraud, waste and abuse; the administration’s overall push for proactive release of datasets frequently sought by the public; the potential backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests if the data is not put online; and the public interest reporting that flows from the ability to crunch this kind of data.

“Journalists play an important role in informing the public about what is happening with complex issues, such as health care, and we’ve seen some incredible, award-winning investigative reporting on the issue,” said Reporters Committee FOI Director Mark Caramanica. “Electronic access to these granular Medicare payment datasets would adhere to the spirit and letter of FOIA and administration transparency policy without violating the privacy of physicians or patients.”

Joining the Reporters Committee on the comments were: American Society of News Editors; The Associated Press; Bloomberg L.P.; The Center for Public Integrity; The Daily Beast Company LLC; The E.W. Scripps Company; Gannett Co., Inc.; Investigative Reporters and Editors; The McClatchy Company; The National Press Club; National Press Photographers Association; NBCUniversal Media, LLC; The New York Times; North Jersey Media Group; NPR, Inc.; Online News Association; Radio Television Digital News Association; Reuters America LLC; Society of Professional Journalists; Tribune Company; and The Washington Post.

About the Reporters Committee

Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· Brief: Comments to HHS on potential release of Medicare physician data