For years, the financial transactions between doctors and companies that sell prescription drugs and medical devices have been kept mostly secret—with details largely inaccessible to the public.
But with the help of the federal government’s new data-heavy Open Payments website, the secret is out.
Just this afternoon, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services launched the first-ever public database detailing billions of dollars worth of financial transactions between health care providers and the industry.
The database was required under the 2010’s Physician Payments Sunshine Act—a provision of the President’s Health Care Law authored by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). The purpose was to increase health care spending transparency by allowing the public to see what doctors are receiving from the health care industry—like grants or speaking fees.
“It should empower consumers to learn whether their doctors take payments and if so, why, and whether that matters to them,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, author of the ACA provision—said in a statement released Monday.
The data is split into three different categories—general payments, research payments and physician ownership and investments. According to the data, companies made 4.4 million payments totaling $3.5 billion to 546,000 doctors and about 1,360 teaching hospitals in the last five months of 2013.
Prior to today’s launch, physicians had 45 days to review the data in order to ferret out any errors. But just like healthcare.gov, this website, too, was plagued with technical troubles. The problems sparked concerns that some doctors may not have been able to gain access in time to fact check their data.
CMS officials told reporters on Tuesday that it withheld about one-third of the data it collected due to accuracy concerns. Agency officials said they will publish additional data as it becomes available.
“The roll-out won’t be perfect,” Grassley said in a statement. “Some information will be withheld because CMS wanted to protect doctors from a small amount of reports that might be imprecise. But as the information is refined, the data will improve. It will become more complete as doctors, drug and device companies, and CMS work to update and refine the information.”
Critics of the new website worry that the payments could be misleading or be misrepresented.
Just last month, the American Medical Association asked CMS to delay the data base’s launch—citing concerns about the data’s accuracy.
“If the government releases incorrect information to the public, it can lead to misinterpretations, harm reputations and cause patients to question their trust in their physicians,” AMA President Robert M. Wah, MD, said in a statement. “Inaccurate data can also unfairly impact physicians’ ability to attain or keep research grants and other employment opportunities that require disclosure.”
Other groups like the Advanced Medical Technology Association and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America have expressed similar concerns—and questioned whether the website would provide enough context for consumers to understand what the payments represented, Modern Healthcare noted.
This is the second big win for healthcare spending transparency this year. In April, CMS, for the first time ever, released a massive database revealing how Medicare paid $77 billion to nearly one million doctors. Still, with the government unloading more and more data on the public, experts caution that it needs to be viewed with proper caution and context.
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