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Error: You Have No Payments from Pharma

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by Charles Ornstein

The federal government has a word for physicians who don’t have financial relationships with pharmaceutical and medical device manufacturers: “Error.”

This week, the government began allowing doctors to log into a secure website to check the payments attributed to them by drug and device makers. This information will be made public later this year under the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, a part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. In advance, if doctors believe the material about them is wrong, they can contest it.

But early reports suggest the new site has some glitches. Doctors say it is taking them as long as an hour, sometimes longer, to verify their identities and log in. (Because the information is not yet public, doctors have to go through several steps to prove they are who they say they are.) Once they get that far, doctors who were expecting the site to clearly reflect that they don't have relationships with pharmaceutical companies have met with a surprise.

“You have the following errors on the page,” the Open Payments website tells them. “There are no results that match the specified search criteria.”

The Open Payments website, when it is open to the public, will show payments made from August to December 2013. Going forward, it will cover complete calendar years.

Dr. Bradley Flansbaum, a hospitalist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, received the error message, which he called “ambiguous.”

While he doesn't work with companies, “I am still uncertain, despite arriving at the exit screen, whether error means no pharma reports or HHS [has] a bug to repair,” he said in an e-mail.

Dr. Aaron Gray, a family physician and specialist in sports medicine at the University of Missouri agreed.

“After going through the entire registration process, which took close to 20 minutes, I was disappointed when I searched to see an error message,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I’m hoping that means I don’t have any payments in the system, but I’m not quite sure. It’s a letdown to go through all the steps of the process and not have a confirmation that I don't have any payments in the system.”

Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said the “error” message clearly states that there are no results for the doctor. Those with questions can contact the Open Payments help desk.

ProPublica has been tracking payments from pharmaceutical companies to doctors since 2010 in its news application called Dollars for Docs. The site includes companies that have made their payments public, typically under settlement agreements with the government to resolve allegations of improper marketing. Dollars for Docs currently includes $2.5 billion in payments through 2012 from 15 companies representing about 43 percent of U.S. drug sales.

ProPublica is looking to talk to doctors who've logged into the Open Payments website and checked their entries. Contact reporter Charles Ornstein at charles.ornstein@propublica.org.

This report was originally published by ProPublica and is republished here with permission.