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Grassley, Baucus Offer Bill Widening Access to Medicare Data

By Mary Agnes Carey, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor
September 18, 2006 -- The bipartisan leadership of the Senate Finance Committee has introduced legislation that would give researchers greater access to data on Medicare beneficiaries' use of hospital, physician, and prescription drug services.

Medicare processes 500 million benefit claims a year, and allowing federal, university, and other researchers to analyze that data could help determine the safety and effectiveness of various medical treatments, according to a statement issued Monday by panel chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

"Researchers could help us better understand why services that we know can help people maintain good health are not being used and to develop policies to promote their use," he said.

Max Baucus of Montana, the panel's ranking Democrat, said the measure (S 3987) would allow federal agencies to work together for the first time to evaluate the medical care of a large segment of the population, data that could be used to improve America's health care system.

Grassley and Baucus said they added strong safeguards in the measure to protect beneficiaries' and providers' privacy and confidentiality. Researchers given access to information would be required to meet criteria, including "significant expertise" in analyzing the type of data involved, the senators said in a statement.

The measure would apply to the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Researchers would be required to publish their methodology and findings and would be prohibited from selling the data or using them to create any commercial products. Provider-specific information could not be made public.

In addition, the Congressional Budget Office, Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office, and the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission would also have access to the data to help fulfill their responsibilities to Congress concerning Medicare.

Other lawmakers are also interested in analyzing Medicare data as a way to improve the efficiency of the nation's health care system. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-NH), introduced legislation Sept. 14 that would allow employers and insurers access to Medicare claims data to study the cost and quality of health care services.

Automakers, business lobbies, insurers, and provider groups, including the American Hospital Association and the American Nurses Association, are backing Gregg's bill.

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