AMA panel takes steps toward more transparency

The American Medical Association panel that plays a key role in setting payment rates for physicians has voted to make public more of its deliberations and is revamping some of the methods it uses for determining the values of services.

The panel has come under criticism in recent years because, despite its importance in the economy of U.S. health care, its meetings have not been freely accessible to the public. The panel advises the federal government on the value of physicians’ services and its estimates are widely used by insurance companies.

In July, The Washington Post reported that the panel’s methods for gauging the value of procedures were flawed, in part because the estimates it used for how much time a procedure involves were in some cases off by as much as 100 percent.

In October, the panel voted to publish to the Web the dates and locations of meetings, vote tallies and meeting minutes.

The panel’s methods for calculating the value of physicians’ services are also changing to ensure data consistency and integrity.

The estimates are based on surveys of doctors, and the panel is moving to centralize the process of conducting the surveys, which had previously been done independently by specialty societies. The panel also set new minimums for the number of doctors who must be surveyed.

“These improvements are part of our commitment to improve overall transparency, accessibility and efficiency of the data and its methodology, which strengthens the committee’s primary mission of providing the best possible recommendations to [Medicare] on values for Medicare services,” Barbara Levy, the chairman of the panel, said in a statement Wednesday. “We will continue to update and improve our processes and address any issues that may arise.”

Some critics of the panel, many of them primary-care doctors, expressed tentative approval of the measures.

“It remains to be seen if the recent actions of the [panel] will lead to fair evaluation of all physician services, especially as they relate to primary care,” said Glen Stream, past board chairman of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

But Brian Klepper, a health-care analyst and an owner of a business that runs health clinics at work sites, said the problem is deeper.

“Why should we have the valuation of physician services being done by the same people who are conducting these services and being paid for them?” he asked.

Peter Whoriskey is a staff writer for The Washington Post handling investigations of financial and economic topics.
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