Health officials will for the first time release data on Medicare payments to U.S. physicians — a move some professional groups fear will jeopardize the privacy of care providers.

The disclosure comes in response to a federal court order lifting the 33-year-old injunction that has prohibited the agency from publishing payment data on the health care program that provides coverage for nearly 50 million elderly and disabled Americans. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) said in a blog post that the release was a “major step forward” that will boost transparency and promote analysis.

“Data like these can shine a light on how care is delivered in the Medicare program. They can help consumers compare the services provided and payments received by individual health care providers,” Jonathan Blum, principal deputy administrator at CMS, wrote. “Businesses and consumers alike can use these data to drive decision-making and reward quality, cost-effective care. We look forward to describing how this information can inform consumers and health care providers when we release this data in the near future.”

The ruling, which was handed down last May, makes specific data on $70 billion paid to 550,000 physicians subject to the Freedom of Information Act. “In accordance with the FOIA, an agency is required to make frequently requested materials available electronically,” the agency wrote in a letter sent to the American Medical Association.

Privacy Concerns

Matters involving 11 beneficiaries or fewer will be redacted in order to protect patient privacy, the CMS said. But for doctors, it’s a different story: Public data will now feature names, addresses, and reimbursement information of providers involved in the $635-billion program. In addition, the AMA is worried that key parts of the disclosed data will be misinterpreted by the public.

“The AMA is concerned that CMS’ broad approach to releasing physician payment data will mislead the public into making inappropriate and potentially harmful treatment decisions and will result in unwarranted bias against physicians that can destroy careers,” Ardis Dee Hoven, president of the AMA, said in a statement.

But the CMS has counters that, in this case, the public’s interest in the material outweighs the privacy interest. “Over the past 30 years, the landscape has changed with respect to physician information that is available to the public,” Blum wrote. “As a result, the health care system is changing from a system dominated by a dearth of usable, actionable information to one where care coordination and dramatically enhanced data availability and data exchange will power greater innovation, higher quality, increased productivity and lower costs.”