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Bill Aims to Cure Costly Side-Effect of Doctor Gifts

May 28, 2008

BOSTON, MA - A bill in the Massachusetts legislature aims to give a gift to patients by banning pharmaceutical companies from giving gifts to doctors. Supporters of the bill say such gifts, for example free lunches or free pens, have been shown to influence which drugs doctors prescribe.

Patients could be left paying for a brand-name drug instead of a much cheaper generic equivalent that may work just as well. Pharmaceutical companies are calling the ban anti-business, but state Senator Richard Moore calls it anti-fraud.

"If a product is useful and effective, you really shouldn't have to do what amounts to a bribe to get in to see a doctor to talk about the medication. The doctors should feel it's in the best interest of their patients to learn more."

A 2007 study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that 94 percent of physicians receive gifts from pharmaceutical companies.

Dr. Jason Block, a physician at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital, explains that the legislation would also establish what's called an academic detailing program to provide objective experts from universities rather than from drug companies to talk to physicians about drugs and their proper use.

"The model is based on what pharmaceutical reps do. But pharmaceutical reps deal with a single drug, not a condition. That's the big difference and that's why academic detailing is so helpful."

Retired truck driver Leo Murphy says he didn't find out a generic version was available until he refused to pay for the brand-name drug. He now pays less than a tenth of what he used to for his prescription.

"The pharmacist looked it up and she called my doctor, who approved the generic medicine. The price went from a flat rate of $135 to about $9."

The bill passed the state Senate and is now in the House. It would make Massachusetts the first state to have an outright ban on gift-giving by pharmaceutical companies.

Kevin Clay/Steve Powers, Public News Service - MA