An Open Response To HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt

First published on THCB.
hhsUnder the Bush Administration, HHS officials keep telling us how they support health care pricing and performance transparency. But in withholding Medicare physician data from public scrutiny – they have followed the AMA’s advice that doctors have a right to privacy – they demonstrate that their interest in transparency is selective.

A few months ago, the two of us – both long-time advocates for transparency and accountability – posted separate comments on
Secretary Mike Leavitt’s blogBrian asked Secretary Leavitt to square his support of “Chartered Value Exchanges” with the attempt to block release of physician-specific Medicare claims data to Consumers’ Checkbook, which wants to rate doctors. After a court ruled that the data should be provided to the group, HHS appealed. Michael urged the secretary to go beyond supporting Consumers’ Checkbook and use his “bully pulpit” to promote sophisticated data analysis that could be used to create national quality comparisons.
Secretary Leavitt graciously asked us to consider and comment on the department’s proposed “Medicare trigger legislation” calling for the release of physician performance measures. We are delighted to continue the conversation.

First, let’s give credit where credit is due. We agree that the proposed legislation is a major step in the right direction.

Yet the legislation’s intent seems at odds with the department’s turn-back-the-clock arguments in Consumers’ Checkbook vs. HHS. There, the department asserts that physicians have a right to privacy, and that the quality of medical care they provide in return for taxpayer dollars does not have to be disclosed — despite its importance to consumers and other purchasers of care. Interestingly, this privacy is a privilege hospitals do not enjoy.

In a December 10, 2007 American Medical News article (since revised), the American Medical Association’s board chair gloated that HHS had taken the AMA’s “advice” in appealing the original August 22, 2007 District Court ruling for Consumers’ Checkbook. Moreover, as the Los Angeles Times pointed out, while the department proclaims in press releases that it simply wants legal clarification on its authority to release the physician data,
the government’s legal brief in the case calls for the appeals court to reverse [the August] ruling, leaving the restrictions on the release of data in place.

This is not a partisan issue. Most objective health care experts across the political spectrum believe that transparent pricing and quality information is critical to transforming the current crisis-ridden system into one that is stable and sustainable. Without the kind of information sought by Consumers’ Checkbook, a health care marketplace simply cannot function. President Bush virtually said as much in his August, 2006 executive order.

HHS has said it “recognizes and shares the goals of Consumers’ Checkbook.” If that is so, HHS should match words with deeds. That means dropping its appeal of the Checkbook ruling and challenging purchasers, health plans and individual consumers to use the marketplace to reward doctors and others who provide or contribute to safer, higher quality, more efficient care.


Michael Millenson and Brian Klepper

About Brian Klepper

Brian Klepper is a health care analyst, commentator and a Principal in Worksite Health Advisors.
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