Open Payments Website Riddled With Errors, Analysis Finds

January 23, 2015 in News

Data about drugmakers’ payments to doctors within CMS’ physician payment website are riddled with errors, ProPublica/New York Times‘ “The Upshot” reports (Ornstein et al., “The Upshot,” ProPublica/New York Times, 1/22).


In September, CMS launched its Open Payments System, which is required under the Affordable Care Act’s Sunshine Act and aims to boost transparency by making public payments health care providers have received from drugmakers and medical device manufactures. The first round of data included payments made between Aug. 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2013. Overall, the data showed manufacturers made 4.4 million payments to physicians and teaching hospitals during the time frame valued at $3.5 billion.

In December 2014, CMS updated the website to include about 68,000 new payments. The database now includes payment information for about 500,000 physicians and 1,360 teaching hospitals, totaling $3.7 billion (iHealthBeat, 12/22/14).

Errors Plentiful, ‘Not Surprising’

While developing an application to identify the drugs and medical devices that were most heavily marketed to doctors in the last five months of 2013, ProPublica/”The Upshot” uncovered errors with the site’s data, including:

  • Misspelled names of drugs;
  • Payments for a single drug were sometimes recorded under multiple names;
  • Some payments were not connected to specific products; and
  • Subsidiaries of one drugmaker recorded payments for the same drugs.

For example, the analysis, among other errors, found that:

  • The name of Forest Laboratories’ depression drug, Fetzima, was misspelled 953 times;
  • About 8.5% of the 4.3 million payments were not connected to specific products;
  • Questcor Pharmaceuticals recorded payments for H.P. Acthar Gel, its drug for conditions such as kidney disease, under eight different names;
  • More than 140 drugmakers did not list product names in their records; and
  • Five Johnson Johnson subsidiaries reported payments for its diabetes drug Invokana.

The analysis found no signs that data were “deliberately evasive.” However, it showed that the data could be difficult for the public to understand.


According to ProPublica/”The Upshot,” CMS does not confirm the data that companies submit. Instead, the department fixes errors as they are exposed.

Shantanu Agrawal, director of CMS’ Center for Program Integrity, said, “We are very committed to not altering data,” adding, “Our role is not to spell-check for the industry. The act of transparency also will improve the data itself.”

John Murphy, assistant general counsel at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said that given the amount of data, “it’s not surprising… that there are some errors out there.” He added, “I’d suspect this stuff will get much more streamlined and much better” (“The Upshot,” ProPublica/New York Times, 1/22).

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