Arkansas Surgeon General: More Transparency Means Better Healthcare

Apr 11, 2014

This week’s nationwide release of data on doctors’ Medicare billing fees has many cheering the cause of making the costs associated with healthcare more transparent. The release also heralds a future of greater transparency as to how healthcare is delivered and assessed, according to Arkansas Surgeon General Joe Thompson.

In Arkansas, numbers show oncologists, ophthalmologists and ambulance services tend to receive the most in Medicare payments. Thompson said he welcomes the greater transparency in healthcare costs but warns that the numbers could be taken out of context.

“This is one important component but not the only component that should go into an analysis of how effective or high-quality a clinician is,” he said. “[Conversely,] it is important new data that lets us see into the healthcare system, identify areas where we have practiced variation that should not exist, or maybe gaps in care [where] we could get better quality care for patients by understanding where the healthcare system was failing.”

Thompson said in specialty areas of healthcare, like oncology, patients often receive much of their treatment, like IV-administered chemotherapy in the offices of their physicians, thus “it’s logical that those physicians are going to bill more than somebody who does most of their work in the hospital, like a surgeon.”

The data on claims costs had been withheld for decades until a federal judge overturned an injunction on the release of the information. Thompson argues that the new public numbers, which are only available for the year 2012, comprise just one part of the many aspects of healthcare.

"There are methods to actually measure and assess each of those: not only what it costs, but also the quality, the effectiveness and patient experiences.” he said. “I think we’re going to have a growing demand by consumers as well as those paying for healthcare to have more transparency in the system. And I would anticipate far more information becoming available over the next ten years, than had been available over the last several decades.”

Thompson says Medicare’s recent disclosure of billing data may also signal a step by toward embracing a move away from the so-called fee-for-service model of billing, toward an approach that bills for episodes of care. The state has been working with healthcare providers and payers in recent months toward implementing an episodic billing structure through its "Payment Improvement Initiative."

Several national news outlets have aggregated the data in searchable formats.