Albany Times Union
Disclosure law would cure conflict
By ROBERT RESTUCCIA
July 8, 2007
The recent scandal surrounding hidden financial ties between student loan companies and colleges highlights how conflicts of interest hurt consumers and damage the public's trust.
In the same way New York took quick action to confront and expose the financial conflicts of interest present in the school loan scandal, the state has the opportunity to take action and expose similar conflicts of interest present in the health care industry through passage of the pharmaceutical gift disclosure bill currently stalled in the state Senate.
The influence of pharmaceutical marketing on health care providers is overwhelming. Each year, drug companies spend $7 billion marketing directly to physicians to sway their prescribing practices through gifts such as company-branded pens and pads, catered lunches, travel, sports tickets and free drug samples. Doctors are also offered financial incentives such as speaking and consulting fees, and paid continuing education courses. Consumers Union estimates that drug companies are giving $40 million to $50 million to doctors each year in New York alone.
Marketing to doctors with gifts works to boost the bottom line of drug companies. The spending on prescription drugs in the United States has more than tripled, and pharmaceutical costs have increased at a rate higher than inflation. The drugs most responsible for rising costs are the ones most heavily marketed and most often prescribed.
But the cost to patients and the public is too great when aggressive marketing campaigns degrade patient care and raise the costs of health care by leading doctors to prescribe newer, less-tested drugs over cheaper generics or similar drugs proven most effective for a patient's needs.
To ensure that doctors are prescribing drugs based on science and not marketing, the financial ties between doctors and pharmaceutical companies must be eliminated, and disclosure laws, like the one being considered in New York, are a crucial first step.
The disclosure bill that was passed by the Assembly would mandate the reporting of gifts from pharmaceutical companies to doctors that are more than $75 in value and would be more stringent than laws in other states by instituting penalties for noncompliance and not allowing pharmaceutical companies to designate gifts as "trade secrets."
By passing the bill, New York would be in step with a growing number of states that are using the law to combat the sway the drug industry has on doctors by banning the sale of doctor prescribing information for marketing purposes, creating industry-free education programs on prescription drugs and mandating gift disclosure that would allow the public to see the potential conflicts of interest doctors have with pharmaceutical companies.
Disclosure laws in Minnesota and Vermont have proven to be powerful tools in exposing the harmful side effects caused by hidden financial ties between doctors and pharmaceutical companies.
In Minnesota, the press used data from that state's disclosure law and found that the prescribing of a powerful antipsychotic drug was three times higher among physicians who received more than $5,000 annually in gifts and other payments from the manufacturer.
The Vermont attorney general recently released data resulting from the state's disclosure law that showed pharmaceutical companies spending $2.25 million in gifts, fees and other expenses in one year alone to market their drugs to doctors in a small state. These problems are not unique to Minnesota or Vermont, but we know about them because of a law similar to the one being proposed for New York.
Patients have a right to know if a physician has a conflict of interest before putting their lives into that doctor's hands. They also have the right to high quality, affordable health care free from the influence of pharmaceutical marketing. The Senate still has time to take action on the pharmaceutical gift disclosure bill that will allow New York to continue to protect consumers by making transparent the hidden financial ties between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry.
Robert Restuccia is executive director of The Prescription Project, a national initiative funded by Pew Charitable Trusts (http://www.prescriptionproject.org).