Health Inc.

Medicare Spending On Hospitals Gets Web Treatment

You may have heard during the debate over health overhaul that health spending varies wildly between states and even between tiny hamlets.

But seeing is believing, right? Well, now you can check it out for yourself, thanks to an online tool just released by the government. You can use it see how much hospital care costs Medicare by state.

The dashboard shows the number and total cost of payments to hospitals for treating 25 top diagnoses and allows you to compare spending by state. Joint replacements lead the list with more than 400,000 performed last year.

The chart also lists which hospitals were the most frequent providers of care for a given diagnosis. A separate bubble chart illustrates total spending for each state between 2006 and March of this year.

But still, we have to say the charts don't tell us as much as we'd like. For instance, the graphics don't include population data that could put the figures in perspective. More patients in California, Florida, New York and Texas — the four most populous states — received treatment than in any other state in all but three of the 25 diagnoses. Not a big surprise.

The site is part of President Obama's much broader Open Government Initiative. In a statement last year announcing the initiative, Obama said "[o]penness will strengthen our democracy," and he called on agency heads to come up with plans and tools to achieve that goal. Those plans were due yesterday. The White House gave every agency except the Office of Personnel Management and the Council on Environmental Quality top marks for transparency.

Yet, the Obama administration has struggled with making government data both accessible and useful at the same time. Recovery.gov was sold as part of an "unprecedented" transparency push for the economic stimulus package. But, at least at first, the Recovery.gov was a hodgepodge of confusing jargon and missing data. One report described funding for "NTIA DTACBP," bureaucratese for the T.V. converter box program.

That site has gotten much better, however. Now, a detailed map lets users know the location, cost and contractors for specific projects at the street level. The CMS data tool, now in a "beta" stage, could go through the same life cycle. CQ HealthBeat reported yesterday that officials plan to release far more data later this year. You can let CMS know what you'd like to see by sending a comment here.

Weaver is a reporter at Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service.

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