Small slice of physicians get huge portion of Medicare's payments

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A fraction of the country's doctors receives a disproportionate share of the $77 billion in Medicare payments made to physicians in 2012, according to data released Wednesday that provides a glimpse into the way healthcare dollars are spent.

Just 100 doctors were paid $610 million in 2012, according to a report in The New York Times. A separate Wall Street Journal analysis of the data found that 1 percent of doctors accounted for 14 percent of the $77 billion in billings.

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Many of the top earners were ophthalmologists and highly specialized oncologists.

According to a USA Today study, nearly $21 million went to a single ophthalmologist in Florida. Clinical laboratory workers and radiation therapy workers have by far the highest average pay under the program, each pulling in more than $1 million annually, according to the analysis.

The previously undisclosed information details Medicare payments to 900,000 healthcare providers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) hadn’t been able to release the data since a court injunction more than 30 years ago, but the injunction was vacated last May.

The information is now being released under the new healthcare law.

“For too long, the only information on physicians readily available to consumers was physician name, address and phone number,” CMS officials said in a statement. “This data will, for the first time, provide a better picture of how physicians practice in the Medicare program.”

The nation’s largest physician group, the American Medical Association (AMA), opposed the release, saying it didn’t include reasonable safeguards and that the data will be misinterpreted to portray medical providers in a negative light.

“We believe that the broad data dump today by CMS has significant short-comings regarding the accuracy and value of the medical services rendered by physicians. Releasing the data without context will likely lead to inaccuracies, misinterpretations, false conclusions and other unintended consequences,” the group said in a statement.

In some cases, the high payments also reflect high costs of pharmaceuticals or medical devices.

The payments also must be used to cover personnel, equipment and malpractice insurance.

Federal health officials say they released the data as a way to heighten transparency and discourage waste in the U.S. healthcare system. The initiative is primarily aimed at researchers interested in studying usage trends and will not contain information about specific beneficiaries.