Digital & Social Media

It’s Pharma’s Turn for a Little Sunshine — Get Sunscreen

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Last April, as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid (CMS) released information about individual physician payments from Medicare, there was a firestorm of media about the big bucks some doctors and medical specialties were raking in from the federal program. National and locals outlets piled on, some even posting multiple articles, and naming names of specific doctors wherever they could.

At the end of September, it will be the pharmaceutical industry’s turn.

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is required to post at the end of the federal fiscal year all payments by pharma companies to physicians and teaching hospitals, which the agency has been collecting in compliance with the law’s “Sunshine Act” section. The point of the provision is to increase the level of transparency involving the exchange of payments between those who make medicines and those who prescribe them. The information will be compiled into a publicly available and searchable online database on the CMS website.

While the Medicare data focused on tax dollars being paid to physicians, the Sunshine Act is now providing the basis for a story that has an even more personal impact on a patient — especially a patient who has just been prescribed a drug by a doctor who received a payment or payments from the drug’s manufacturer. One can expect not only similar stories listing individual top earners, both nationally and locally, but also comparisons of pharmaceutical companies themselves. There will likely be an assessment of who spent what amounts of money and in what categories of payment. Physicians and medical specialties will likely be ranked and so will the companies.

Drug makers, biotech manufacturers, teaching hospitals and doctors, are you ready for the scrutiny?

Now is a good time to begin to develop messaging around the many issues associated with the data’s release. While stories will probably focus on amounts of money, messaging from stakeholders will need to emphasize the value of the relationships that are developed because of those payments and the types of activities they help fund, including research trials, which are of clear benefit to the patient. Companies, medical societies, and physicians need to be able to connect the dots from the actual money exchanged to the value created and enjoyed if not by individual patients, certainly by a class of patients.

Every exercise of issues management is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity. While no magic communications bullet exists to completely blunt the likely implications in the media coverage of the financial data, there is an opportunity here to more broadly educate the public and the media about how the system of drug discovery and research works and convey a greater understanding of the fact that it is a process that does not occur in a vacuum or without certain costs. And on the upside, consider this: Rarely in the area of issues management does one get the chance to look at a blueprint ahead of time that so precisely shows how a story is likely to unfold and provides the luxury of preparation. This is one of those rare times.

Editor’s Note: Senak will be leading a webinar on the Sunshine Act’s impact June 19 from noon to 1 pm EDT. To register, click this link.

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About the author

Mark Senak

Mark Senak brings more than two decades of experience in communications, law, public health and public affairs. Author of the blog Eye on FDA, he has deep expertise in FDA regulations, including digital communications for the pharma industry. In addition to his extensive background as a lawyer, Senak is an author and frequent speaker.

A FleishmanHillard employee.