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Washington Post health-care investigation into AMA’s secret panel that sets values for doctors’ services

A investigation found that the nation’s system for estimating the value of a doctor’s services, a critical piece of U.S. health-care economics, is fraught with inaccuracies that appear to be inflating the value of many procedures.

Unknown to most, a single committee of the , the chief lobbying group for physicians, meets confidentially every year to come up with values for most of the services a doctor performs. Those values are required under federal law to be based on the time and intensity of the procedures. The values, in turn, determine what and most private insurers pay doctors.

But the AMA’s estimates of the time involved in many procedures are exaggerated, sometimes by as much as 100 percent, according to an analysis of doctors’ time, as well as interviews and reviews of medical journals.

Key findings from The Post analysis:

  • To determine how long a procedure takes, the AMA relies on surveys of doctors conducted by the associations representing specialists and . The doctors who fill out the surveys are informed that the reason for the survey is to set pay. Increasingly, the survey estimates have been found so improbable that the AMA has had to significantly lower them, according to federal documents.
  • The AMA committee, in conjunction with Medicare, has been seven times as likely to raise estimates of work value than to lower them, according to a Post analysis of federal records for 5,700 procedures. This happened despite productivity and technology advances that should have cut the time required.
  • If AMA estimates of time are correct, hundreds of doctors are working improbable hours, according to an analysis of records from surgery centers in Florida and Pennsylvania. In some specialties, more than one in five doctors would have to have been working more than 12 hours on average on a single day – much longer than the 10 hours or so a typical surgery center is open.


How a secretive panel uses data that distorts doctors’ pay

Hear from critics of the secret panel as well as the panel’s chair

The Washington Post