Deciphering the Sunshine Act: Transparency Regulation and Financial Conflicts in Health Care

Am J Law Med. 2017 Nov;43(4):303-343. doi: 10.1177/0098858817753403.


The Physician Payments Sunshine Act ("Sunshine Act"), enacted to address financial conflicts in health care, is the first comprehensive federal legislation mandating public reporting of payments between drug companies, device manufacturers, and medicine. This article analyzes the Sunshine Act's uneven record, exploring how the law serves as an intriguing example of the uncertain case for transparency regulation in health care. The Sunshine Act's bumpy rollout demonstrates that commanding transparency through legislation can be arduous because of considerable implementation challenges. Capturing all the relevant information about financial relationships and reporting it with sufficient contextual and comparative data has proven disappointingly difficult. In addition, the law suffers from uncertainty and poor design as to the intended audience. Indeed, there is strong reason to believe that it will not significantly impact decision-making of primary recipients like patients. Yet the Sunshine Act nonetheless retains important and perhaps underappreciated value. From the almost four years of information generated, we have learned that industry-medicine financial ties vary significantly by physician specialty, and somewhat by physician gender. In many medical fields the distribution of top dollar payments tends to be heavily skewed to a few recipients, all of which have important implications for optimal management of financial conflicts and for health policy more generally. Accordingly, the Sunshine Act's greatest potential is not guiding decisions of individual patients or physicians, but its downstream effects. This Article traces how secondary audiences, such as regulators, watchdogs, and counsel are already starting to make productive use of Sunshine Act information. Public reporting has, for example, made more feasible linking industry payment information with Medicare reimbursement data. As a result, policymakers can more closely examine correlations between industry spending directed at individual physicians and their prescribing and referral decisions. Moreover, savvy counsel are recognizing that Sunshine Act information provides explosive evidence in private civil litigation and this Article explores the first wave of cases.

MeSH terms

  • Conflict of Interest / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Databases, Factual / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Disclosure / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Humans
  • Industry / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Physicians / economics*
  • Physicians / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Physicians / statistics & numerical data
  • Sex Distribution
  • United States