WASHINGTON -- Picking a specialist for a delicate medical procedure like a heart bypass could get a lot easier in the not-too-distant future.

The government announced yesterday that Medicare will finally make its extensive claims database available to employers, insurance companies and consumer groups to produce report cards on local doctors -- and improve current ratings of hospitals. By analyzing masses of billing records, experts can glean such critical information as how often a doctor has performed a particular procedure and get a general sense of problems such as preventable complications.

Doctors will be identifiable through the Medicare files. Compiled in an easily understood format and released publicly, medical report cards could become a powerful tool for promoting quality care.

Said David Lansky, president of the Pacific Business Group on Health: "This is the beginning of a process to give us the information to make informed decisions." -- AP

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