Ruling opening health care records appealed

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Although President Bush has repeatedly called for helping consumers to make better decisions about health care, his administration is appealing a groundbreaking court ruling that would have permitted disclosure of Medicare billing records so patients could compare individual doctors' expertise and efficiency.

Release of such information is advocated by consumer groups, employers and the health insurance industry, but opposed by groups representing doctors. Consumer and business groups said they were disappointed by the decision, while the American Medical Association has petitioned to join the appeal on the Bush administration's side.

With information on more than 40 million patients and 700,000 doctors, the Medicare claims database is considered the mother lode of health care data, richer than the computer banks of big insurers. It could reveal, for example, how often a doctor has performed a given procedure - such as knee surgery or cardiac catheterization - a statistic considered a key indicator of how good a physician is likely to be.

But release of such details has been limited by government policy, based partly on a 1970s court ruling that sought to protect the privacy of doctors' financial information.

In the current case, a group called Consumers' Checkbook sued the government for data on doctors in four states and Washington, D.C.

The government filed its appeal with little fanfare this week in the U.S. Court of Appeals here.

In an unusual statement, the Health and Human Services Department endorsed the objectives of the consumer group that is suing the agency for information, but said it wants a higher court review to clarify the different lower court rulings.

"We're caught between court decisions," said Christina Pearson, a spokeswoman for the department. "There's conflicting information from different courts, so we're pushing to get clarity."

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