Latest Sunshine Act fact? Drug and device makers shelled out $6.5B to docs, hospitals last year

Drug and device makers handed over almost $6.5 billion to doctors and medical institutions in 2015, according to the latest release from the U.S. government’s Open Payments database. Add in various ownership and investment interests, and the total comes to $7.52 billion.

That’s a slight increase from 2014, when payments rang in at $7.46 billion. This is the second full year of disclosures under the Physician Payments Sunshine Act.

Research funding made up almost half of the 2015 total--$3.88 billion--with ownerships and investment interests accounting for another $1.03 billion.

Speakers’ fees, meals, royalties and other payments added up to $2.6 billion.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services gathers the payment info from drugmakers and devices companies under the “sunshine" provision of the Affordable Care Act.

Researchers and journalists have mined Open Payments, sometimes to break down the enormous set of data into digestible chunks; by geography, for instance. Last month, a set of researchers published an analysis pairing Open Payments information about free meals provided to doctors and CMS prescription data. The JAMA study found an association between the number of free meals and the number of prescriptions for brands promoted at those meals.

There’s no proof that the free food actually caused doctors to prescribe more of the branded meds, but it was not the first study to identify an association between the two. Pharma marketing experts take issue with the research, saying it’s a simplistic analysis that leaves out important data--about the information doctors learn during those free meals, the drug samples they may have collected to hand out to patients, and so on.

The Sunshine Act followed several high-profile scandals at top medical schools where faculty members had accepted tens of thousands from pharma companies--and sometimes failed to disclose the payments as required by the schools themselves.

In the wake of those scandals, teaching hospitals cracked down on visits from pharma reps, and the state of Massachusetts went so far as to ban pharma handouts, putting the kibosh not only on big dinners but on many of the tchotchkes drug reps distributed at doctors' offices and trade shows. That ban has since been repealed, but many hospitals and physician practices continue to bar reps, if not always out of concern for potential conflicts of interest.

Before the CMS was charged with setting up its database, some drugmakers were already required to disclose financial relationships with doctors because of off-label marketing settlements with the U.S. Justice Department. The Open Payments database is the first to cover all U.S. drug and device companies.

For 2015, the database comprises payments from 1,456 companies to 618,000 doctors and 1,100 teaching hospitals. As for the total number of disclosures? 11.9 million.

- check out the basics on this year’s Open Payments release

Special Report: Top 10 drug brands by payments to doctors

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