- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

For the first time, the Obama administration posted Tuesday data outlining months of consulting fees, grants, travel expenses and other gifts that companies paid to America’s doctors.

Mandated by the health care law, the Open Payments program so far lists $3.5 billions in disbursements from pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers to more than 546,000 physicians and 1,360 teaching hospitals from August 2013 to December 2013.

Beginning in June, the reports will be published annually and include 12 months of data, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced.

“CMS is committed to transparency and this is an opportunity for the public to learn about the relationships among health care providers, and pharmaceutical and device companies,” CMS Administrator Marilyn Tavenner said. “This initial public posting of data is only the first phase of the Open Payments program. In coming weeks, we will be adding additional data and tools that will give consumers, researchers, and others a detailed look into this industry and its financial arrangements.”

The move is being hailed by some as a win for transparency, as public interest groups warn doctors’ prescribing behavior could be affected by financial influence by the companies.

Others warn, however, the data is incomplete or could be inaccurate in some cases. During testing, some physicians found they had been linked to payments that went to doctors who have the same name.

CMS said payments do not necessarily signal wrongdoing on the part of doctors and teaching hospitals, and that they did not parse out which payments may be beneficial or imply underhanded dealing.

“We are simply making the data available to the public,” Shantanu Agrawal, deputy administrator and director of CMS’s Center for Program Integrity, told reporters in a conference call.

America’s Health Insurance Plans, the main lobby group for insurers, said “the payments, while not nefarious in every case, are a perfect symbol for the misaligned incentives in our health care system.”

“While most health care stakeholders are working together to find ways to lower costs, drugmakers remain focused on strategies to keep them inflated,” AHIP spokesman Brendan Buck said.

About 40 percent of the records do not name the people involved in the payments, at least for now, while parties cross-check the information.

The agency did not publish more than 190,000 payments, which is stipulated by law because the transactions involved research and disclosure must be withheld for four years or until the product at hand is approved by the FDA, officials said.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, spearheaded the movement to release the data through his Physician Payments Sunshine Act, which passed as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2010.

In an op-ed for the Des Moines Register, Mr. Grassley said Tuesday he pushed the legislation because several years ago because “it started to become clear how little public information exists on the financial relationships between doctors and pharmaceutical and medical device companies.”

He acknowledged that the database was incomplete and would improve over time, as well as the debate around the data’s release.

“The doctors rightly point out that such payments are perfectly legal, unlike kickbacks to steer prescribers toward certain drugs,” he wrote. “But studies have shown that exposure to a prescription drug on the lecture circuit or in the lab leads to more prescriptions for that drug, whether the doctor feels influenced or not.”

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