Q. What is Medicare Part D?
A. Congress approved the Medicare Modernization Act in 2003 to provide affordable prescription drugs to seniors and the disabled. It took effect in 2006. Some 36 million people are now enrolled in private insurance plans that pay most of the cost of their drugs. Medicare spent $62 billion subsidizing the program last year.
Q. Where does this data come from?
A. When pharmacies dispense prescriptions to Medicare patients, they transmit information to Part D plans about the patient, the prescriber, the drug, its strength and retail cost. The plans pay the claims and then submit the data to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees Medicare. ProPublica obtained and analyzed data for 2007-2011 for this project. We are currently displaying data for 2011 -- covering more than 1.1 billion prescriptions and refills. (We had previously displayed data for 2010; that information is no longer available.)
Q. Why is my health provider not in here?
A. Medications administered to Medicare enrollees during an office visit or in a hospital are covered by another part of Medicare, not Part D. That means they will not show up in our data. In addition, providers who did not write at least 50 prescriptions (including refills) of at least one drug under Medicare Part D will not show up. Nearly 364,000 providers are reported on Prescriber Checkup.
Q. How do you know a provider's specialty?
A. We used the primary specialty chosen by the health professionals themselves. Providers are required to identify this specialty when they apply for a federal health care ID number. (In cases where we did not have a prescriber's ID number, or if a specialty is not specified, no comparisons are shown in Prescriber Checkup.) A provider's chosen specialty doesn't always mean the person has special training or certification. For example, some doctors select a specialty called "Specialist," which can be a catchall for providers of different fields.
Be aware that doctors may have incorrectly entered their specialty or may have changed specialties without updating their profiles. Some classified themselves as a group practice; we identified this in parentheses next to the specialty. The date each provider updated his or her profile is noted.
Q. What does it mean if my doctor has longer or shorter average prescription lengths?
A. When a provider writes a prescription, he or she specifies how many days the patient should take it. We looked at the average length of prescriptions for every drug and every provider and compared it to peers in the state. In some cases, for example, a provider may write shorter prescriptions while adjusting a patient's medication. That could make the provider's prescription count appear higher than peers. On the other end, if providers write prescriptions for more days than average, they may have fewer prescriptions.