Medicare record release irks doctors

Doctors reacted swiftly and indignantly to Wednesday’s release of government records revealing unprecedented details about Medicare payments to physicians.

Many resented being included on a list that showed some doctors billing Medicare for millions of dollars. The top 10 doctors alone received a combined $121.4 million for Medicare Part B payments in 2012.

Federal investigators have scrutinized payments to three of the top 10 earners.

One is Farid Fata, a cancer doctor in the Detroit area, who faces federal fraud charges. He received $10 million in Medicare payments in 2012. Fata was arrested in August and is awaiting trial in a Medicare fraud case, accused of intentionally misdiagnosing illnesses and ordering unnecessary treatments, including chemotherapy for patients who did not have cancer. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Many of the doctors said they were just passing through the payment to drug companies. Some said they were unfairly singled out even though they were billing for an entire practice. And still others disputed the accuracy of Medicare data.

Gerald Ho, 50, a rheumatologist who runs three offices in the Los Angeles area, said he had been “sort of dreading” the release of the Medicare payment data. Ho received nearly $5.4 million in reimbursements in 2012. Of that, he said, probably about $5 million covered the cost of genetically engineered drugs to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis. He also has to pay a staff of 40.

“People are going to see these numbers and people aren’t going to understand,” he said. “I am not pocketing $5.3 million. To tell you the truth, I know there’s been a lot of Medicare fraud, and I understand the government wants to provide a measure of transparency. But when they throw out numbers like this without any context, it’s going to be misconstrued by the public.”

Franklin Cockerill of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is No. 4 on the list with $11,068,463 in reimbursements. As the director for Mayo Clinic Laboratories, Cockerill is routinely listed as the billing physician on more than 23 million tests a year, a Mayo spokesman said.

“When anything is billed out to Medicare, it will have Dr. Cockerill’s name on it,” said Andy Tofilon, marketing administrator for Mayo Medical Laboratories. “He is the chair of a large laboratory-medicine practice, and the buck stops at his desk.”

Cockerill is salaried and has “no financial stake by being included in all of these reports,” Tofilon said.

Minh Nguyen, a hematologist-oncologist at Orange Coast Oncology in Newport Beach, Calif., was listed as the 10th-highest biller of Medicare in 2012. He said all the billings for chemotherapy drugs at his five-physician practice were under his name.

“It looks like I’m getting paid $9 million … but it’s a pass-through,” he said. “The majority of the billing goes to pay the drug companies.”

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