Medicare Data Is Informing Public Understanding of Health Care

doctor with patient

The April release of Medicare’s vast trove of payment data has triggered a torrent of reports illustrating just how useful this data can be for patients and providers. While many of the articles have focused on how much Medicare pays doctors, the data have also provided valuable context for broader pieces on the state of American health care.

On May 18, The New York Times highlighted how hospital administration costs contribute to the heavy burden of paying for our nation’s health care. According to the Times’ analysis, hospital administrators and insurance executives make up to four times more than the average doctor earns. In total, such administrative costs make up 20 to 30 percent of the total cost of health care in the United States.

While the article does not rely on Medicare data in discussing the amounts paid to administrators and executives, it does use the reimbursement data to compare those costs with the direct prices of medical procedures. The article focuses on a hospital system in New Jersey whose president earned an eye-popping $22 million in 2012 – and notes that the Medicare data show that the system’s hospitals “bill more than twice the national average for many procedures.”

Other outlets have done similar stories, like NPR’s work exploring why some doctors bill Medicare more than others. While higher-than-normal billing might seem to be an obvious red flag, some doctors have cultivated specialty practices and predominantly treat difficult cases – hence the need for longer, more involved consultations. These types of pieces couple the new data from Medicare with additional investigation to provide broader insights. That enhances public understanding of our medical system, which can contribute to the ongoing discussion of health care reform.

These stories, and the ones sure to come, show why open data is so valuable. Committing to transparency presents the opportunity for users to apply that data to make decisions, add context, and improve the system. And data releases are even more powerful when coupled with good data management practices. Consistent identifiers and common data structures across datasets, for instance, make it easier to compare different datasets and draw new connections. Propelled by reforms including President Obama’s 2013 executive order on open data and the newly signed DATA Act, federal agencies are hard at work improving data management and access. As the Medicare example shows, those efforts will contribute to a more informed democracy.

This post has been updated since its original publication date.

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