Open Payments database launches amid increasing criticism

The much-maligned Open Payments database has launched, though ProPublica reports it's far from glitch-free.

The database, mandated under a provision of the Affordable Care Act to shed light on payments to doctors from pharmaceutical and device companies, reveals 4.4 million payments valued at nearly $3.5 billion have been made.

It covers payments made between August and December 2013 and includes general and research payments, as well as payments to companies' physician investors. It's to be updated annually, beginning in June 2015, to cover the full preceding year.

"Open Payments does not identify which financial relationships are beneficial and which could cause conflicts of interest," Shantanu Agrawal, deputy administrator and director of the Center for Program Integrity at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, says in an announcement.

"It simply makes the data available to the public. So while these data could discourage payments and others transfers of value that might have an inappropriate influence on research, education, and clinical decision-making, they could also help identify relationships that lead to the development of beneficial new technologies," Agrawal writes.

CMS also said it will add more data and tools to make sifting through the data easier. Early users experienced long delays and error messages, ProPublica reports, knocking the site because it lacks a look-up tool that allows users to see all results from a particular doctor in one place.

It said some drug and device makers reported payments from multiple subsidiaries rather than one parent company, making it difficult to determine the total paid. And payments associated with a particular drug at times were listed by as many as eight different variations of the name.

While CMS announced previously that it would not release about one-third of the payment data for the last five months of 2013 because of inconsistencies, ProPublica reports that about 64 percent of the total spending by companies didn't list a particular doctor or hospital as recipient. That was particularly true in research, where that figure soared to 90 percent.

Physicians have complained that the data doesn't provide enough context to help the public understand it and that they weren't given enough time to check its accuracy. Johns Hopkins University researchers say the data distorts the "research payments" made for clinical trials, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Physicians also say the value of the drugs donated for clinical trials are recorded as going to individual clinical trial investigators. They add that the practice could discourage doctors from participating in research, according to an article in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

To learn more:
- read the ProPublica article
- here's the announcement
- check out the WSJ piece
- read the Annals of Internal Medicine article