Journalists have had a good time with the Medicare data on payments to doctors. The most recent exposé is headlined “Taxpayers face big Medicare tab for unusual doctor billings” by the Wall Street Journal. Because of a paywall, most people did not have a chance to read the article.

It recounted several anecdotes about physicians who received huge amounts of money for procedures of dubious worth. I will summarize two of them.

In 2012, an internist in Los Angeles was paid close to $2.3 million for a procedure known as “enhanced external counterpulsation,” or EECP, which is supposed to ameliorate angina in patients who are not surgical candidates.

Although not a cardiologist, he apparently used EECP on 615 patients. At the Cleveland Clinic, whose chairman of cardiology says the procedure should rarely be used, it was performed on only 6 patients in a year—that’s 6 patients total by a staff of 141 cardiologists.

A Florida dermatologist received $2.41 million from Medicare in 2012 for radiation treatment of melanoma in 94 patients for 15,610 treatments, an average of 166 treatments per patient. The usual number is 20 to 35 treatments. The doctor said he billed for each lesion separately and treated each one about 40 times.

A radiation oncologist who was interviewed said, “When a patient has several lesions, they commonly get treated simultaneously and are billed for as a single treatment.”

That is the way Medicare handles most multiple procedures. At best you might get away with billing a partial amount for an additional treatment.

Any physician who has spent time in the private practice of any medical specialty that involves the treatment of elderly patients can tell you that Medicare will nickel and dime you to death over a minor dispute about an evaluation and management code.

Medicare is also notorious for holding back money due to physicians who are just trying to make a living. A classic ploy is to request a copy of the dictated operative note for a simple procedure. This will add 4 to 6 weeks to the eventual cutting of a check.

They routinely perform unannounced on-site audits of doctors offices looking for discrepancies in documentation. I once experienced one myself and luckily was not cited or fined.

Here are some questions that I haven’t seen any journalist ask.

Why does the Wall Street Journal have to point out such flagrant outliers? What does the Wall Street Journal know about detecting these practices that Medicare could not do for itself? How can Medicare continue to pay top dollar for questionable treatments and billing practices? Why doesn’t Medicare do something simple like automatically reviewing any practice that receives more than say $500,000 in a single year?


Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and critical care and has re-certified in both several times. He blogs at and tweets as @SkepticScalpel. His blog averages over 1400 page views per day, and he has over 10,400 followers on Twitter.