CMS Open Payments website launches despite concerns

CMS's Open Payments website has finally launched for the public, in accordance with the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, despite months of questions, criticisms, objections and several occasions of being taken offline.

The Open Payments Program requires physicians and teaching hospitals to report on payments from drug, medical device and biologics companies, and the program aims to create greater transparency around the financial relationships of these entities.

Although the program may be well-intended, the website has caused many physicians, teaching hospitals and manufacturers to question its scope and usefulness to patients. Also, the website has already been suspended or gone offline on several occasions due to data inaccuracies and data issues. CMS even announced that it would withhold one-third of the records it received due to errors that were identified and disputes about the data.

Additionally, several life science trade organizations recently expressed concerns to CMS that the website needs to provide context for the payments.

The data released through the website launch contains information on roughly 4.4 million payments from 546,000 physicians and 1,360 teaching hospitals, according to CMS. The sum of the 4.4 million payments is estimated to equal around $3.5 billion.

When submitting records for each payment, the option of including contextual information was given, according to CMS Deputy Administrator and Director of the Center for Program Integrity Shantanu Agrawal, MD. Therefore, any contextual payment information that was received by CMS will be made available to the public on the website.

According to Dr. Agrawal, users of the website are cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the data, since it does not distinguish between payments and transactions that are considered appropriate and those that are not.

Elizabeth Carder-Thompson, a partner and member of the Life Sciences Health Industry Group at Reed Smith, has practiced in the area of healthcare regulatory law for more than 30 years and has written and spoken extensively about the impending launch of the Open Payments program over the last year.

"Transparency in general is good, and I think it's good for the public to understand the important interactions between industry and physicians," says Ms. Carder-Thompson. "It's this kind of openness that, many times, leads to advancements in medical technology."

However, Ms. Carder-Thompson fears the public is going to have trouble understanding the data due to lack of context and the sheer volume of data reported. "The lack of context may lead to physicians being reluctant to be involved in relationships that can otherwise be misunderstood by the public," says Ms. Carder-Thompson. "They may not want their name out there."

Ms. Carder-Thompson is also concerned the lack of context could lead to a number of qui tam, or whistle-blower, cases being initiated against physicians or manufacturers due to misunderstandings.

In Ms. Carder-Thompson's opinion, ultimately, only time will tell just how impactful the Open Payments website will be.

The public can access the data at New tools and features will be added to the site at a later time to make it more-user friendly for consumers.

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