Drug company payments under scrutiny

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(Host) Psychiatrists in Vermont were the top beneficiaries of drug company perks and payments.

That’s according to a report released by the state Attorney General’s office.

The office now wants to examine how the industry payments match up to the prescriptions that the doctors write.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Vermont is one of a half dozen states that monitor marketing efforts by pharmaceutical companies.

The law exempts free samples and payments for clinical research trials. But companies are required to disclose lecture and consulting fees, free meals and other perks.

The state report found that drug companies paid Vermont doctors about $2.25 million last year – a 2.3% increase. Eleven psychiatrists in Vermont received a total of $502,000. And payments to the psychiatrists more than doubled, to an average of about $46,000 apiece.

(Brill) “We were surprised at how much the average payments to the psychiatrists that were in the top 100 recipient group increased.”

(Dillon) Julie Brill is the assistant attorney general who worked on the report. She says many health care consumers don’t know about the drug companies marketing practices.

(Brill) “I think the first and foremost intent behind requiring the disclosures to come to our office, and requiring us to put out the report is to let people know this practice does occur. And I think the second is to try to get a feel for the extent of it, how many doctors are involved, how many companies are involved.”

(Dillon) Brill says drug companies are apparently focusing their payments on opinion-makers and leaders in the medical community.

(Brill) “It seems that the pharmaceutical companies are more particularly targeting doctors who they deem to be thought leaders in the prescribing community, and that is people who are either professors in their particular field, speak either in Vermont or around the country.”

(Dillon) The state now wants to match its information on drug company payments with other databases that look at prescriptions written by doctors. Officials want to look at the data together to see what influence – if any – the payments have on physicians’ prescribing patterns.

(Brill) “We think that that would be helpful to policymakers to the legislature to administration as well as to the public to help them understand whether there is some kind of effect from these payments.”

(Dillon) After psychiatrists, endocrinologists earned the second-highest amount from the drug companies, with an average payment of about $34,000.

The payments cover everything from meals to speaking fees. Brill says most physicians believe they are not influenced by the drug company perks.

(Brill) “And the question really is, is that true? And then, there’s a second question. Even if they are not influenced by it, what is the appearance of it? How do consumers and others feel when they walk into a doctors office and they receive a prescription and it makes them wonder, is this really the best drug for me, or does my doctor only think it’s the best drug because maybe he’s getting a payment from someone?”

(Dillon) The state Medical Society says it wants to work with the Attorney General’s office to increase public disclosure of the drug payment data.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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