Three of the five largest private health insurers in the US – UnitedHealthcare, Aetna, and Humana – have decided to follow the lead of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and release their payment information to the public. According to Bloomberg News, this data will include 5 billion individual medical claims and $1 trillion in spending.
Releasing payment information by governmental and private health insurers is an important step towards transparency. Providing researchers with access to the details of health insurance payments is an unprecedented and long-awaited opportunity to gain insights into the drivers of rising healthcare costs. Although I share the enthusiasm of many other researchers for analyzing this valuable data, I am also concerned with unanticipated consequences that may arise with unrestricted release of sensitive and complicated healthcare insurance data to the public.
Reputation of Physicians
The performance of physicians, as some of the most reputable and highly specialized professionals of our society, cannot be evaluated only based on their insurance billing history. To the untrained eye, the abnormalities in insurance charges may seem unjustifiable. Deep expertise in the medical domain is required to investigate all of the underlying causes of the abnormal prescriptions, medical procedures and equipment utilizations. Accusing physicians of malpractice or misconduct based on hasty analysis of this data and without careful examination of the unique medical context in each case, would be unfair to those who deliver medical care to patients.