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The Secret Surveillance Capitalism That Suffuses Medicare

By MICHAEL MILLENSON

Imagine a government program where private contractors boost their bottom line by secretly mining participants’ personal information, such as credit reports, shopping habits and even website logins.

It’s called Medicare.

This is open enrollment season, when 64 million elderly and disabled Americans choose between traditional fee-for-service Medicare and private Medicare Advantage (MA) health plans. MA membership is soaring; within a few years it’s expected to encompass the majority of beneficiaries. That popularity is due in no small part to the extra benefits plans can provide to promote good health, ranging from gym membership and eyeglasses to meal delivery and transportation assistance.

There is, however, an unspoken price for these enhancements that’s being paid not in dollars but in privacy. To better target outreach, some plans are routinely accessing sophisticated analytics that draw upon what’s euphemistically labeled “consumer data.” One vendor boasts of having up to 5,000 “certified variables for every adult in America,” including “clinical, social, economic, behavioral and environmental data.” 

Yet while companies like Facebook and Google have faced intense scrutiny, health care firms have remained largely under the radar. The ethical issue is obvious. Since none of this sensitive personal information is covered by the privacy and disclosure rules protecting actual medical data, it is being deliberately used without disclosure to, or explicit consent by, consumers. That’s simply wrong.

But a more fundamental concern involves the analyses themselves.

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Will Your Health Insurer Pay to Train Your Doctor?

Lost in the weeds of President Obama’s budget proposal is a 10-year, $11 billion reduction in Medicare funding for graduate medical education (GME). GME is the “residency” part of medical training, in which medical school graduates (newly minted MDs and DOs) spend 3-7 years learning the ropes of their specialties in teaching hospitals across the country.

Medicare currently spends almost $10 billion annually on GME. One-third of that is for “Direct Medical Education” (DME), which pays teaching hospitals so that they in turn can provide salaries and benefits to residents (current salaries average around $50,000/year, regardless of specialty; there are variances by region). No problem there.

The proposed cuts come from the Medicare portion known as “Indirect Medical Education” (IME) payments. Though IME accounts for two-thirds of the Medicare GME pie, it’s not easy for hospitals to itemize what exactly it is they provide for this significant amount of funding. Instead, hospitals bill Medicare based on a complex algorithm that includes the ‘resident-to-bed’ ratio, among other variables.

A 2009 Rand Corporation study commissioned by Medicare to evaluate aspects of residency training called on the government to tie IME payments directly to improvements in educational and hospital quality, lest the money be perceived to be going down a series of non-specific sinkholes. That idea has caught on, and legislators in both parties now see the healthy IME slice of Medicare education funding as a plum target for cost-cutting, as the direct benefits are difficult to enumerate, let alone quantify.

This has medical educators very worried that we will have to do more with much less (disclosure: I am one).

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