ObamaCare database reveals $3.5 billion in payments to doctors

Nearly $3.5 billion in industry payments and gifts to doctors were made public Tuesday in a new government database intended to highlight conflicts of interest.

The first round of "Sunshine Act" data includes payments as small as $10 that were made by drug and device manufacturers to clinicians and teaching hospitals.

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The online system, created by the Affordable Care Act, is intended to shed light on financial ties between doctors and businesses that could influence prescriptions and other medical decisions.

The Obama administration cheered the long-delayed launch of the database, which included roughly two-thirds of the reported data, as a victory for transparency.

"This is an opportunity for the public to learn about the relationships among healthcare providers, and pharmaceutical and device companies," Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Administrator Marilyn Tavenner said in a statement.

"In the coming weeks, we will be adding additional data and tools that will give consumers, researchers and others a detailed look into this industry and its financial arrangements."

The Open Payments program has been a subject of controversy for doctors and industry groups since the passage of the healthcare law in 2010.

On Aug. 15, the American Medical Association (AMA) called on the CMS to delay the website's launch in order to give doctors more time to review the reports filed by drug and device makers.

The AMA warned that the database contains errors and lacks context for understanding which payments indicate improper influence and which are aboveboard for projects like clinical research.

"Patients deserve to have access to accurate information and publishing inaccurate data can lead to misinterpretations, harm reputations and cause patients to question their trust in their physicians," sad AMA President Robert M. Wah said in a statement.

The data available Tuesday includes 4.4 million payments made during the last five months of 2013.

Forty percent of the records were published without doctors' names due to possible errors, a move that can be interpreted as a concession to the AMA and other groups.

CMS officials said the holes would be filled in the next update, scheduled for June 2015, and sought to reassure physicians that they are treating the data with care.

"This is just the first phase of the Open Payments program," said Dr. Shantanu Agrawal, deputy administrator and director of the CMS Center for Program Integrity, on a call with reporters. "We'll continue to work with providers to make the system more user-friendly."

The agency emphasized that the records do not necessarily signal wrongdoing on the part of doctors. The website contains examples of different types payments as context for the public, Agrawal said.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) expressed support for the database and said it would work with the CMS to refine it.

“While we are currently reviewing the data released by CMS, we are hopeful it includes sufficient context, so patients have a clear understanding regarding the important physician and manufacturer collaborations that occur and to help patients make accurate and informed health care decisions,”  said John Murphy, PhRMA’s associate general counsel.

The launch drew praise from Capitol Hill. Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyKavanaugh returns questionnaire to Senate panel Sunk judicial pick spills over into Supreme Court fight Andrew Wheeler must reverse damage to American heartland MORE (R-Iowa), the lead champion of the program, said the database is an important step toward understanding how the healthcare industry and doctors interact.

"From day one, the Physician Payments Sunshine Act database will be helpful in shining light on a part of medicine most people haven't had the time or opportunity to consider," Grassley said in a statement.

"Eventually, the database will become a valuable resource for all of us with a stake in our country's healthcare system. That includes individual consumers, insurance companies and taxpayers who pay for Medicare and Medicaid."

Last updated at 3:24 p.m.