Time to Let the Sunshine In

By AARP Executive Vice President Debra Whitman, Ph.D. and AARP Director of Health Services Research Leigh Purvis

Starting today, AARP members and consumers of all ages will be able to get a better idea of what may be driving their health care provider's decisions thanks to the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, or Sunshine Act. The Sunshine Act requires drug and medical device manufacturers to publicly report virtually all payments, gifts, and other services provided to health care providers and teaching hospitals every year.

Drug and medical device manufacturers spend billions of dollars on marketing and sales activities directed towards health care providers. Many health care providers believe industry-provider relationships are harmless; however, research has consistently found that they influence behavior and drive up health care costs. In addition, it is unlikely that drug and device manufacturers would find so many ways to create such relationships unless it led to the increased use of their products.

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Until now, relationships between health care providers and drug and device manufacturers remained largely undetected by consumers, primarily because they had no clear way of knowing that they exist. However, all of this will change thanks to the Sunshine Act.

Each year, drug and medical device manufacturers will be required to submit information regarding their financial relationships with health care providers and teaching hospitals. This data will then be summarized and distributed to Congress, states, and the public. In addition, an online, searchable database will launch on September 30, 2014, and updated data will be released every year thereafter. All of the involved parties have an opportunity to review the submitted information prior to publication and suggest changes.

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Although some aspects of the Sunshine Act have been subject to criticism, AARP and other supporters believe that improved transparency will increase accountability, credibility, and ultimately improve the practice of medicine.

In fact, there is already evidence that the Sunshine Act will work as expected. For example, one state that implemented its own Sunshine Law saw a 12 percent decrease in payments from industry to health providers and hospitals between 2011 and 2012. Further, the increased attention on industry-provider relationships has helped almost double the share of physician offices that restrict visits from sales representatives over the past six years.

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While not all relationships between health care providers and drug and medical device manufacturers are problematic, the implementation of the Physician Payments Sunshine Act will help ensure that provider-industry relationships finally receive appropriate scrutiny. It will also help motivated health care consumers make more informed decisions about their providers.

It is hard to believe that any patient would want their provider basing their treatment decisions on sales and marketing instead of science, making it clear that both consumers and the health care system will benefit from letting the sunshine in.

This piece originally ran in Roll Call

Photo: ajt/iStock

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