Sunshine act inaction: Industry letter may clear the way

  • Article by: JILL BURCUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 27, 2011 - 10:58 AM

A letter sent Tuesday by medical-industry heavyweights is striking in this era of antiregulatory fervor. Rather than fighting regulations, the missive strongly urges the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to roll out the new federal rules that will make the Physician Payments Sunshine Act a reality.

This landmark law, passed as part of 2010's federal health overhaul, requires drug and medical-device manufactures to disclose the lucrative payments sometimes made to medical professionals during product development. In doing so, the law empowers consumers to make their own judgments about the money's influence on medical care.

Yet federal officials have displayed alarming disregard for an important accountability tool that enjoys broad bipartisan political support. HHS blew past the Oct. 1 statutory deadline for turning the law's language into practical guidelines.

The agency still hasn't acted even as the first industry deadline looms. Companies are expected to begin tracking payment information on Jan. 1. The information becomes public in 2013.

The letter's signees include AdvaMed, a well-known medical-device trade group, as well as the powerful Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Other signees: the Pew Health Group, Consumers Union, the Biotechnology Industry Organization and the Medical Imaging & Technology Alliance.

The companies make a practical plea: Firms need to know how to comply with the new law, and they need time to get ready to collect the data. Congress gave the industry three months to prepare, but HHS's puzzling foot-dragging has reduced that window to two.

The letter sensibly urges HHS to get going and to ensure that firms are given three months to comply. But the letter also seems to have a grander purpose: providing political cover.

"This federal transparency provision has support from diverse stakeholders, including consumer and patient groups, professional medical associations, provider organizations, and industry,'' the letter says.

HHS already knew that, but there's value in reminding officials again, not to mention the agency's boss in the White House. "Regulation" has become a loaded word as well as an obvious 2012 Republican campaign attack strategy. The agency's head-scratching procrastination on this issue may unfortunately be rooted in politics.

If that's the case, a letter from industry heavyweights demanding regulation may be what's needed to move ahead.

HHS shouldn't need that cover to do what's right, but the agency now has it. The rules should be issued without further delay.

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Jill Burcum is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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