Sorrell wants more disclosure of drug company payments to Vt. doctors

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(Host) Attorney General William Sorrell says the public should know which Vermont doctors get big payments from drug companies.

Sorrell enforces a state law that requires the pharmaceutical industry to report how much they spend to market their products.

But the law also allows the companies to keep secret the names of the providers who got paid.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Lawmakers are considering a bill that would require more disclosure of drug company payments.

Attorney General Sorrell was in the House Health Care Committee, testifying in support of the legislation. He said that last year the industry spent almost $3 million on meals, gifts and other benefits to health care providers in Vermont. About half the money paid out last year was for speakers’ fees or other direct payments

(Sorrell) "And when you look at the breakdown of the payments, the top earner, or recipient, was a particular psychiatrist who received over $112,000 – about 92 percent of that from just one company."

(Dillon) Bennington Republican Mary Morrissey asked for more detail.

(Morrissey)  "Are these documents that we can actually see? So is it a region in the state? Is it a certain hospital?"

(Dillon) It was the opening Sorrell was waiting for. He explained that state law now allows drug companies to keep certain information confidential. The industry says that the names of doctors who get the payments are "trade secrets" and therefore exempt from public disclosure.

(Sorrell) "The amount of information that is claimed to be trade secret protected is going up. So we have the information, but we are not allowed to share it."

(Dillon) That would change under the new legislation. The doctor’s names would be made public. And the bill – which has already passed the Senate – would also sharply limit the types of payments that can be made.

Ken Libertoff is executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health. The organization has been pushing for greater disclosure of the industry gifts. He told the committee that the pharmaceutical industry has been closely following the Vermont debate.

(Libertoff) "The bill doesn’t do everything. It can’t do everything. It opens a new era … This bill without question will become a national standard that other states will look at. It’s one of the reasons that there’s so much interest in it."

(Dillon) The industry’s lobbying organization is the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. PhRMA lawyer Marjorie Powell said the Vermont bill could end up curbing the flow of information between drug developers and health care providers. For example, she said, company representatives need to be able to buy meals for doctors to talk about their products.

(Powell) "We think it’s important that the state not get in the way of the most efficient way of presenting that information, which is talking with the doctor and everybody else in the office who may be answering patient phone calls, during lunch."

(Dillon) Powell said the Vermont bill is not needed, because the industry is adopting a voluntary code that limits payments to providers.

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

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