Healthcare and Money

Will the Sunshine Act Curb Pharma Payments to Doctors?

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Just two weeks ago, as part of the Affordable Care Act, the Centers for Medicare and Medicade Services published its final rule on the reporting mandates for physician payments from pharmaceutical and medical device makers. Called the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, this law requires:

applicable manufacturers of drugs, devices, biologicals, or medical supplies covered by Medicare, Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to report annually to the Secretary certain payments or transfers of value provided to physicians or teaching hospitals (“covered recipients”).

Why Is This Important?

For too many physicians, the medications they choose to prescribe are influenced by these payments. A case control study at a university hospital found that physicians who requested a new drug be added to the formalary were 19X more likely to have received money or gifts from the drug company. According to the New England Journal of Medicine as of 2007 fully 94% of all physicians accepted gifts from pharma, although by 2009, only 84% of physicians accepted gifts from pharma.

In their Dollars for Docs series, Propublica not only detailed the trail of money from the pharmaceutical industry to physicians and the changes in prescribing practices that ensued, but also, found that over 250 of the physicians receiving these payments had been disciplined by their state’s medical boards with the public never the wiser.

Wouldn’t you want to know if your physician was receiving payments to ‘consult’ on a particular drug or medical device? What if that drug or device turned out to be dangerous like, Avandia or Vioxx or in the case of women’s health Yasmin, Yaz or Ocella or even the vaginal mesh implants?  I would. And soon, you will be able to find this information, at least for those physicians that accept medicare or medicade. For the remaining physicians, we’ll have to rely on the stellar, investigative reporting of organizations like Propublica.

What Is the Physician Payment Sunshine Act?

The Physician Payment Sunshine Act mandates payments or ‘transfer of value’ to physicians be reported to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Collection of this information is set to begin in August with full compliance and reporting expected in 2014.

The cool thing about this act, if it is implemented correctly, is that payment or transfer of value includes money for marketing activities, such as promotional or conference talks and consultation services. It also will include research grants and “charitable” contributions (which usually come with some promotional strings attached), funding to attend conferences, honoraria and royalties and license fees. The pharmaceutical and device companies making these payments will be required to list names, address, amount of payment, date of payment(s) and describe the service for the payment made for anything over $10. The database will be searchable so that patients can determine what monies their physicians received from pharma or device companies.

Where the Sunshine Act Fails

From the original to the final regulations, a work-around for paying physicians to speak at pharma sponsored continuing medical education (CME) events was added. According to the regulations, so long as the sponsoring company doesn’t pay the physician/speaker directly, those fees are acceptable and need not be listed publicly. Instead, the pharma company must pay a third party vendor to arrange and pay the speakers. CME conferences are where most physicians learn the latest drug therapy, device or medical technique. It is unlikely that speakers at these conferences will speak against the sponsor’s product. Funneling the payments through a third party vendor, who is also paid by the sponsor, is no more than a quick pass at laundering the fees.

What Do Physicians Think About the Sunshine Act?

The opinions are mixed, at least publicly. Some physicians are fully behind the new efforts in transparency and have begun their own campaigns to disentangle the marketing relationships between pharma and physicians. The National Physicians Alliance sponsors the Unbranded Doctor campaign:

The National Physicians Alliance’s Unbranded Doctor is unmasking the pharmaceutical industry’s bogus claim that its marketing efforts are just educational ventures for physicians. By signing up physicians to renounce gifts, lecture fees, and “education” from companies, the Alliance is championing objectivity, integrity, and professionalism.

—Jerome Kassirer, MD
former Editor-in-Chief, New England Journal of Medicine

Similarly, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has positioned itself as a lead proponent of transparency and open data. On the other hand, CME released a survey of over 500 physicians asking if the new regulations to list publicly whether industry sponsored their attendance at CMEs would curtail their attendance. The result was a resounding – yes.

  • 75% of physicians said the disclosure rules would affect their decision to attend at least somewhat.
  • 47%  of physicians said the disclosure rules would affect their decision to attend to a great extent.
  • 46% of CME speakers said the disclosure rule would affect their decision to participate as a panelist or presenter to a great extent
  • 25% percent said it would somewhat affect their participation

Will the Sunshine Act Curb Pharma Payments to Doctors?

Probably not. Unless and until full transparency about medical research, clinical trials and adverse events are made open and accessible to patients and physicians, medical marketing, fabricated data or omitted data, publication bias, and conflicts of interest will continue to pervade our healthcare system. Dangerous medications like the Yasmin suite of birth control pills and unsafe medical devices like J&J’s Gynecare Prolift will remain on the marketplace long after any reasonable person could vouch for their safety.

The Sunshine Act will, however, give patients one more tool to evaluate their physicians and give researchers, investigators and others a way to identify and publicize bad behavior. Who knows, maybe it will even save some money.

To find out if your physician receives money from the pharmaceutical industry go to Dollars for Docs.

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Photo by kike vega on Unsplash.

Photo by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash.



Chandler Marrs MS, MA, PhD spent the last dozen years in women’s health research with a focus on steroid neuroendocrinology and mental health. She has published and presented several articles on her findings. As a graduate student, she founded and directed the UNLV Maternal Health Lab, mentoring dozens of students while directing clinical and Internet-based research. Post graduate, she continued at UNLV as an adjunct faculty member, teaching advanced undergraduate psychopharmacology and health psychology (stress endocrinology). Dr. Marrs received her BA in philosophy from the University of Redlands; MS in Clinical Psychology from California Lutheran University; and, MA and PhD in Experimental Psychology/ Neuroendocrinology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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