Cloudy Forecast on Sunshine Act Data Release?

In June I put on a Webinar about the communications impact and considerations respecting the upcoming release of data from CMS under the terms of the Sunshine Act. That followed a blog posting from April. The point in both of these was to state that the release of data from earlier this past spring regarding Medicare payments to physicians might serve as a harbinger of what was to come in terms of media coverage with the release of financial data regarding payments from the medical products industry to physicians, teaching hospitals and others.

Specifically, the release of the Medicare payments resulted in headlines that focused on money paid to specific physicians as well to specific categories of medical practice with stories taking a national and regional focus.  One could expect much of the same from coverage of the Sunshine Act data, set to be published at the end of September.

However, on August 15 ProPublica reported that the government may actually be withholding one-third of the records from the data base that was to be published, though a press release by CMS on the data base makes no such mention of a delay.  A delay would have many likely side-effects, one of which is to impact the nature of the media coverage of the Sunshine Act data.  That could occur in at least two major ways.

First, it becomes somewhat challenging to report on the data if the data is incomplete – particularly to the tune of one-third of the data being withheld.  What is not known by such a disclosure is just as important as what is known.  The stories that would have been written had there been a complete set of data about which physicians – and which types of physicians – have received the most – and which therapeutic areas have had the greatest investment by companies – and which companies have paid the most – all will have to be qualified if data is withheld.  In other words, every story would include the caveat – “based on what we know now…” Certainly a release of partial data if that happens would have a diluting effect on the nature of the coverage.

Secondly, if there is a partial release the focus of the story migrates from the amounts of money tracked by the government to the way the amounts of money were tracked and reported.  Criticisms about the collection and publication of data will pull attention from the data itself and the stakeholders – to the government agency responsible for collecting it.

Originally the roll out of the Sunshine Act data would have likely had a focus on the actual amounts of money followed by a secondary wave of coverage that might have focused on the process for collecting and reporting the information.  A reporting of partial data may result in switching the waves of coverage – with the first focusing on the delay and the second wave on the financial aspects when the data is finally fully reported.

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