Federal officials said they hope Wednesday's "unprecedented" disclosure of data about $77 billion in Medicare reimbursements to 880,000 physicians and other providers in 2012 will lead to reporters and researchers uncovering fraud, waste and unwarranted variations in treatment that could lead to significant cost savings in the future.
Those officials also said it was "impossible" to quantify how much taxpayer money could have been saved in the past if such Medicare data hadn't been kept secret for 35 years, and instead had been available for independent analysis.
"I'm sure that there are savings that would have been achievable," said Chris Holt, director of health-care policy for the American Action Forum. "I'm sure that there were savings that weren't realized, but I'm not sure how much that has been."
But Cristina Boccuti, who analyzes Medicare policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, said that having data about how much the government was paying individual doctors in past decades could have led to big cost savings, particularly if such data were publicly available in the 2000s, and if Medicare authorities had adjusted their policies in response.
In that decade, both the volume and intensity of certain procedures increased significantly, Boccuti said. She added the data would have exposed the trend and raised questions about whether it was justified, and if these procedures should have been reimbursed at the same rates.
"It wasn't understood how rapidly the volume was growing for a while," Boccuti said.