WASHINGTON - Picking a specialist for a delicate medical procedure like a heart bypass could get a lot easier in the not-too-distant future.
The government announced Monday that Medicare will finally allow its extensive claims database to be used by employers, insurance companies and consumer groups to produce report cards on local doctors - and improve current ratings of hospitals.
By analyzing masses of billing records, experts can glean such critical information as how often a doctor has performed a particular procedure and get a general sense of problems such as preventable complications.
Doctors will be individually identifiable through the Medicare files, but personal data on their patients will remain confidential. Compiled in an easily understood format and released to the public, medical report cards could become a powerful tool for promoting quality care.
"There is tremendous variation in how well doctors do, and most of us as patients don't know that. We make our choices blind," said David Lansky, president of the Pacific Business Group on Health. "This is the beginning of a process to give us the information to make informed decisions." His nonprofit represents 50 large employers that provide coverage for more than 3 million people.
Medicare acting administrator Marilyn Tavenner called the new policy "a giant step forward in making our health care system more transparent and promoting increased competition, accountability, quality and lower costs." But some consumer groups said Medicare was still putting limitations on their access.
Early efforts to rate physicians using limited private insurance data have thus far focused on primary care doctors, but Medicare's rich information could provide the numbers to start rating specialists as well, Lansky said. Consumers will see the first performance reports by late 2012, said a Medicare spokesman.
Medicare officials say they expect nonprofit research groups in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Massachusetts and other states to jump at the chance to use the data. With 47 million beneficiaries and virtually every doctor and hospital in the country participating, Medicare's database is considered the mother lode of health information.
Tapping it has largely been forbidden because of a decades-old court ruling that releasing the information would violate the privacy of doctors. Insurers tried filling with their own claims data, but their files are nowhere near as comprehensive as Medicare's.
Following appeals from lawmakers of both parties on Capitol Hill, President Obama's health care overhaul changed federal law to explicitly authorize release of the information. Medicare followed through in regulations issued Monday.
Employer groups welcomed the new policy.
"There is pent-up demand for this data because everyone wants to be a more informed, intelligent consumer, especially as health care costs are still rising," said Maria Ghazal, policy director at the Business Roundtable, which represents CEOs of major companies providing coverage to some 35 million employees, retirees and family members.