Health care groups want doctor loophole closed

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(Host) Two groups involved with mental health care want to know which Vermont doctors got thousands of dollars last year in gifts from drug companies.

The companies can withhold some of the names under a law that protects trade secrets. The groups say that loophole should be closed.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Last year, physicians and other health care providers in Vermont got about $3.1 million dollars in gifts from pharmaceutical companies.

Vermont is one of a few states that require the drug companies to disclose these kinds of marketing expenses. The payments include consulting fees, travel, gifts and money for lectures. Not included are free drug samples, or payments for clinical research studies.

But the public can’t find out the names of all the doctors who got the money. The attorney general’s office disclosed some of the names under the access to public records laws. But other names were not released because the companies claimed the disclosure would violate trade secrets.

Ken Libertoff is the executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health.

(Libertoff) It is disappointing that because of trade secret clause in our current law there is no way that we can tell you who the 11 psychiatrists were who took an average of about $60,000 in gifts in 2007.

(Dillon) The Vermont Psychiatric Association is also calling for full disclosure. The association recently approved a policy that says its members should not accept money from drug companies. Doctor Thomas Simpatico is president of the group.

(Simpatico) On the one hand things that have in the past felt like innocuous practices may have some influence on prescribing practices. … I think the growing sentiment among physicians, certainly it is the sentiment of the Vermont Psychiatric Association, is simply the possibility that there could be any influence that was not based on scientific information or best practice is enough of a reason to abolish it. And that’s really our main message today.

(Dillon) The trade secret exemption means that about half the recipients of drug company gifts are not named in the attorney general’s report.

Julie Brill is the assistant attorney general who works on the issue. She says the Attorney General’s office is looking at how the exemption could be lifted.

(Brill) We are examining the issue now. It’s essentially a legal issue. We need to determine whether or not we would recommend that the legislature lift the exemption in light of constitutional and statutory requirements. Generally speaking we are quite supportive of getting as much information to the public as possible. We also want to make sure the law doesn’t violate various requirements that fall on the legislature under the constitution and other statutes.

(Dillon) The Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association released a statement saying it was opposed to abolishing the trade secret exemption.

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

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