The American Medical Association (AMA) recently decided to be more transparent about how it goes about setting rates that physicians can charge for carrying out various procedures. At the same time, the board is modifying its approach to how it decides on these prices.

Up until now, these AMA's annual proceedings were never open to the public even though it involves the important task of advising the federal government (Medicare) on setting the price tag of various medical services — which health insurance companies use to gauge their payments.

This apparent shroud of mystery became all the more controversial when it was revealed that the time and effort — which impacts the set price — were being overexaggerated. For instance, a July investigation by the Washington Post found that a doctor in Florida was able to charge for 26 hours of mostly colonoscopy procedures when the services really required a typical day of nine hours. The AMA estimates that a basic colonoscopy requires 75 minutes but various medical sources, according to the Post, indicate that it takes just 30 minutes in reality.

The AMA’s approach to calibrating prices has depended on surveys that are filled out by doctors who know that the purpose of the questionnaire is to set their pay. Special interest groups that represent specialists and primary care physicians have also been greatly involved in how these surveys are conducted. Altogether, this potential conflict of interest might explain why the AMA has had to lower survey estimates, which have consistently gone up despite developments in medicine that are meant to improve efficiency.

To ensure that these surveys are done in a more objective manner, the AMA will more actively supervise how they are carried out and include more doctors that will provide a more representative sampling of estimates.

The panel will also make meeting dates and locations accessible on the web as well, and provide details of what transpires during these gatherings.

“These improvements are part of our commitment to improve overall transparency, accessibility and efficiency of the data and its methodology, which strengthens the committee’s primary mission of providing the best possible recommendations to [Medicare] on values for Medicare services,” Barbara Levy, the chairman of the panel, said in a statement Wednesday. “We will continue to update and improve our processes and address any issues that may arise.”

In spite of the AMA’s moves towards greater clarity, the inherent problem remains that those who influence the value that is put on these services are the very ones who provide them and get paid.

“It remains to be seen if the recent actions of the [panel] will lead to fair evaluation of all physician services, especially as they relate to primary care,” Glen Stream, past board chairman of the American Academy of Family Physicians, recently told the Washington Post.