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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

Virtues of Open Access to Big Data on Claiming and Payment Systems

Access to “big data” is important to multiple aspects of claiming and payments systems. For example, secrecy in data helps some health insurance companies avoid analysis and compilation of data on how often they deny access to stem cell transplants to persons with cancer. Blocking access to data also helps health insurers make it harder for patients and/or doctors to learn if they’ve been systematically cheated out of payments.  Similarly, some property damage insurers seek to block access to “data” on claims and payments after “big storms,” and rewriting of expert reports to deny payments to persons with damaged property. Secrecy also is thought to help litigants on all sides of many issues as they try to take advantage of actual or perceived asymmetries in access to information. In view of these realities, it is therefore no surprise that litigants on all sides tend to seek and argue for data secrecy that blocks access by groups interested in examining “big data” for whatever it may reveal about claims for and payments of money.

Sadly, the desire for secrecy is especially strong among the asbestos bankruptcy trusts that hold the most “big data” on asbestos claiming. This is especially frustrating because once upon a time, David Austern (of the Manville Trust) and some other trusts actively disseminated the “big data” they held on asbestos claiming. Indeed, back in 2009, I described in detail the Manville Trust’s regrettable retreat into secrecy through actions of its Trustees (not David), and cited to some of the obligatory references on the value of sunlight.

It is easy to doubt that society benefits from secrecy on the longest running and most costly “mass tort” in history, which in general has failed to serve the interests of “future claimants.” In other contexts, the federal government and others seek to increase disclosure of big data to encourage more intelligent and wide-spread scrutiny of claiming and payments for systems intended to serve the interests of current and future claimants.  Indeed, back in 2010, the Obama Administration announced plans to release Medicare data so that private “bounty hunters” could root out fraud, as described in a March 29, 2010 article at FierceHealth IT . More recently, much more Medicare data was released, and the Obama Administration (CMS) June 1, 2015 statement went on at length as to the virtues of  releasing massive amounts of Medicare data for analysis by interested persons. There, CMS explained the following regarding the vast scale and scope of Medicare data disclosures:

“As part of the Administration’s efforts to promote better care, smarter spending, and healthier people, today CMS is posting the third annual release of the Medicare hospital utilization and payment data (both inpatient and outpatient) and the second annual release of the physician and other supplier utilization and payment data. The announcement was made at the annual Health Datapalooza conference in Washington, DC.

“These data releases will give patients, researchers, and providers continued access to information to transform the health care delivery system,” said acting CMS Administrator Andy Slavitt. “It’s important for consumers, their providers, researchers and other stakeholders to understand the delivery of care and spending under the Medicare program.”

The Medicare hospital utilization and payment data consists of information for 2013 about the average amount a hospital bills for services that may be provided in an inpatient stay or outpatient visit. The hospital data includes payment and utilization information for services that may be provided in connection with the 100 most common Medicare inpatient stays and 30 selected outpatient procedures at over 3,000 hospitals in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The top 100 inpatient stays represented in the hospital inpatient data are associated with approximately $62 billion in Medicare payments and over 7 million hospital discharges. The Medicare Part B physician, practitioner, and other supplier utilization and payment data consists of information on services and procedures provided to Medicare beneficiaries by physicians and other healthcare professionals. The data also shows payment and submitted charges, or bills, for those services and procedures by provider. It allows for comparisons by physician, specialty, location, types of medical services and procedures delivered, Medicare payment, and submitted charges. The new 2013 dataset has information for over 950,000 distinct health care providers who collectively received $90 billion in Medicare payments. Hospitals, physicians, and other health care providers determine what they will charge for services and procedures provided to patients and these “charges” are the amount the hospital or provider generally bills for the service or procedure, but the amount paid is determined by Medicare’s physician fee schedule or other payment methodologies. CMS protects beneficiaries’ personal information in all its data releases.

“Data transparency facilitates a vibrant health data ecosystem, promotes innovation, and leads to better informed and more engaged health care consumers,” said Niall Brennan, CMS chief data officer and director of the Office of Enterprise and Data Analytics. “CMS will continue to release the hospital and physician data on an annual basis so we can enable smarter decision making about care that is delivered in the health care system.”

The Administration has set measurable goals and a timeline to move Medicare toward paying providers based on the quality, rather than the quantity, of care they give patients. These data releases are part of a wide set of initiatives to achieve better care, smarter spending, and healthier people through our health care system. Open sharing of data securely, timely, and more broadly supports insight and innovation in health care delivery.  

Today’s data release adds to the unprecedented information recently released on Medicare Part D prescription drugs prescribed by physicians and other health care providers.”

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