The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) released on April 9 the Medicare billing information for physician providers after decades of litigation by the American Medical Association (AMA) seeking to block the release. [http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/09/us-usa-medicare-data-idUSBREA3809H20140409] Some of the dollar figures for federal moneys paid to individual physicians have been shocking, but those of us who have studied the economics of maternity care should not be surprised. It is basic economics that markets in which consumer access to information is blocked, and also where real competition has been suppressed, will be characterized by high prices.
The Big Push for Midwives Campaign supports the release of provider billing information because it benefits women and their families. Consumers should have access to information that could affect decisions about their healthcare, including the choice of provider and the cost of a provider’s services. An informed public is better equipped to exercise not only health care choices, but also political speech, especially now that private health plans are required to provide maternity coverage. This kind of data educates both citizens and policymakers about the direct and indirect costs related to healthcare and allows better informed decision making.
Why did the AMA fight to suppress this information for so long? The assumption that consumers are ignorant and need to be protected from information goes back to early American court cases from the 1700s. Back then even physicians did not understand what diseases were and how they spread. Most people could not read and had very limited education. Even if they could read, the information was stuck in books in far-off universities. This remained true even during much of the last century.
Today, most people can read and have access medical and health care information on the internet. They could have had access to this cost-related information if the AMA had not impeded access. Women and their families should have access to whatever information they need that could affect their health care decisions, including relative costs, so they can make intelligent decisions based on the evidence.
The heart of midwifery is educating women and their families so that they make informed decisions instead of keeping them ignorant and dependent on providers. Releasing information like this is a good first step. We need to make this information user-friendly and to educate both citizens and policymakers to compare many factors – costs, outcomes, consumer satisfaction – so they can understand and use the information effectively. Consumers need this information for health care decision, and policy makers should be looking at and comparing what the federal government pays for physician services versus the services of other health professionals, such as midwives.