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Federal judge lifts ban on public access to Medicare data

By Maurice Tamman

(Reuters) - A federal judge lifted a 33-year-old injunction barring public access to a confidential database of Medicare insurance claims, a decision that could lead to greater scrutiny of how physicians treat patients and charge for their services.

Judge Marcia Morales Howard ruled Friday in favor of a motion by Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, that the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida lift an injunction imposed in 1979.

The American Medical Association had fought lifting the ban, arguing that disclosure of the information would violate physicians' right to privacy. Doctors had successfully made the same argument in 1979, when a judge ruled the release of such information would violate the 1974 Privacy Act.

The AMA suggested Friday that it might appeal the decision. In a statement, AMA President-elect Ardis Dee Hoven said the doctors lobby was "considering its options on how best to continue to defend the personal privacy interests of all physicians."

Officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services couldn't be reached for comment. A Dow Jones spokeswoman declined to comment.

Dow Jones went to court in January 2011, attempting to overturn the injunction after a series of stories in the Journal found tens of millions of dollars in fraud and other abuse by doctors and other Medicare providers. Medicare is funded by U.S. taxpayers.

The Journal's work, however, was restricted by limitations placed on the data released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which rendered anonymous all information pertaining to individual Medicare providers. That meant reporters weren't allowed to name individual doctors who the Journal identified solely through using the data.

In her ruling, Judge Howard said that because judicial rulings in the years since the injunction have restricted the Privacy Act's reach, the ban was based "upon a legal principle that can no longer be sustained."

When the suit was filed, the Journal's editor-in-chief at the time, Robert Thomson, said: "The Medicare system is funded by taxpayers, and yet taxpayers are blocked from seeing how their money is spent. It is in the interest of law-abiding practitioners that those who are gaming the system are exposed."

Dow Jones is a unit of News Corp.

(Edited by Michael Williams)

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