Pulling the curtain back on long-hidden industry relationships, the federal government revealed that U.S. doctors and teaching hospitals had $3.5 billion worth of financial ties with drug and medical-device makers in the last five months of 2013.
The details published Tuesday in a new government database have been sought for years by consumer advocates and lawmakers concerned that conflicts of interest in the medical profession are jeopardizing patient care and costing taxpayer-funded health programs.
This first batch of payment data covers just five months of 2013, but it shows the extensive ties medical companies have forged with doctors and academic medical centers across the country. About 546,000 U.S. physicians and 1,360 teaching hospitals received some form of compensation.
This exposure will require everybody to talk about something that’s been underground. It’s a widespread practice that does influence the kind of care patients get.
– Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project in San Francisco
California doctors and hospitals received 18% of the U.S. total, or $638 million, for the five-month period.
In all, the data show nearly $2.5 billion in direct payments to medical providers — with 60% of that related to research. There was an additional $1 billion reported for medical providers’ ownership stakes in companies. That includes grants from companies and money that doctors invested themselves.
Advocates have long been concerned that this corporate largess — from speaking and consulting fees to luxury trips and meals — can lead to patients getting the wrong drugs or medical procedures. Those decisions can harm patients and drive up the nation’s $3-trillion medical tab, experts warn.
Consumer advocates hailed the release of the information after years of debate in Congress and steadfast opposition from industry groups.
“This exposure will require everybody to talk about something that’s been underground,” said Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project in San Francisco. “It’s a widespread practice that does influence the kind of care patients get.”
The database’s immediate impact for consumers may be limited. It’s difficult for consumers to search for their doctors in the data, and the government website ran into technical troubles Tuesday. Obama administration officials said improvements are underway and more data will be published in June.
The Physician Payments Sunshine Act, originally authored by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), was included in the Affordable Care Act that President Obama signed in 2010 amid growing demands for more openness in the U.S. healthcare system.
In the last several years, the Obama administration has lifted some of the secrecy by publishing data on how much hospitals charge for medical procedures and how much the massive federal Medicare program pays individual physicians.