Medical Groups Support Disclosure

Published February 1, 2008

The American Medical Students Association (AMSA), National Physicians Alliance (NPA), and the Prescription Project have declared their support for a proposed federal Physician Payments Sunshine Act.

Market experts, however, say federal policies are causing the problems in the first place.

Introduced by U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Herb Kohl (D-WI), S. 2029 would require makers of drugs and medical devices to disclose the value of all gifts–cash as well as in-kind–they give physicians. Samples of prescription drugs would be exempt.

The proposed law would apply to manufacturers with at least $100 million in annual revenues and would not affect existing state laws on gift disclosure, such as those in Minnesota and Vermont.

AMSA, NPA, and the Prescription Project, a Boston-based pharmaceutical industry watchdog group, testified at two congressional briefings in October and November, saying gifts from pharmaceutical companies induce doctors to prescribe brand-name drugs instead of less-expensive generic medications even when the latter would be effective. NPA Executive Director Jean Silver-Isenstadt said 94 percent of doctors accept gifts from drug companies.

Letting in the Sun

“Right now the public has no way to know whether a doctor’s been given money that might affect prescribing habits,” Grassley explained. “This bill is about letting the sun shine in so that the public can know.

“Whether it’s dinner at a restaurant or tens of thousands of dollars or more in fees and travel,” Grassley said, “patients shouldn’t be in the dark about whether their doctors are getting money from drug and device makers.”

Silver-Isenstadt agreed. “None of this stuff is illegal,” she said. “It’s just not good for the patients.”

What’s at stake, AMSA President Michael Ehlert said, is that “medicine is in danger of losing the public trust.”

Of the $22 billion pharmaceutical companies spent on advertising in 2006, Ehlert pointed out, $7 billion was spent on doctors–direct marketing in the form of money for continuing medical education, travel, consultancy fees, meals, and the ubiquitous pens and notepads.

Light or Darkness?

The proposed law would mandate penalties for unreported gifts, ranging from $10,000 to $100,000 per violation. The legislation also requires the disclosures be filed quarterly and posted on a public Web site.

What does this mean for the average American seeking medical counsel?

“By requiring drug companies and medical device manufacturers to report on their gifts to doctors, we are empowering patients to talk with their doctors about the drugs they are prescribed and to learn more about the influence of the pharmaceutical industry on the practice of medicine,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

That’s not the right response, say market experts.

“Congress leaves a big pot of taxpayers’ money lying around, and it is shocked–shocked!–that physicians and drug companies are taking advantage,” said Michael Cannon, director of health policy studies at the Cato Institute.

“If Congress wants to stop the looting, demanding more paperwork isn’t going to cut it,” Cannon continued. “Congress needs to give the Medicare money directly to seniors, and block grant Medicaid payments to the states. Then seniors and the states can decide who’s corrupt.”

Karina Rollins ([email protected]) is a writer in Washington, DC.

For more information …

The Physician Payments Sunshine Act (S. 2029):