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For Years, Drug Company Paid Top Athletes to Attract Doctors

One drug company, Novartis, paid millions for top athletes and coaches to make appearances at its events, in an effort to boost doctor attendance.

If you’ve checked out our Dollars for Docs coverage, you’ll know that drug companies often pay doctors to consult and give speeches about their products to other doctors. Since 2009, as we’ve noted, seven major pharmaceutical companies have paid $282 million in such payments to health professionals.

But doctors aren’t the only ones who got paid to speak at company events, according to the Washington Times.

From 2006 to 2009, one company, Novartis, took a creative approach to boost doctor attendance and spent $3.6 million paying 150 top athletes and coaches to make appearances, give speeches, answer questions about their careers, and pose for photos with attendees. The payments ranged from $8,000 to $35,000 per appearance, according to the Times:

"Over the years, it got harder and harder to get physicians to come to the informational dinners," said Rooney Nelson, whose company, the Nelson Group, was hired by Novartis in 2006 to put together the dinners with athletes. In a three-year period, the company put on more than 250 events, ending in 2009.

He said his firm provided the athletes and physician speakers and arranged for the restaurants, some of which were high-end. He said his firm would pay the expenses and then be reimbursed by Novartis.

Mr. Nelson, who is suing Novartis over $538,000 in bills he said were unpaid, recalled that the number of doctors attending the events went from a handful to more than 70 once the athletes were involved.

Novartis declined to comment to the Times about the specifics of its athlete-speaker program, but a spokesman said the company is “committed to promoting its products in an ethical and compliant manner and has developed corporate guidelines and procedures to help ensure that all promotional activities and programs meet the applicable requirements by the FDA and other regulatory agencies.” (We’ve called Novartis, but have not yet heard back.)

In an agreement reached last month with the Justice Department, Novartis agreed to pay more than $420 million to settle allegations that it paid kickbacks to doctors to prescribe six drugs and promoted a drug for uses unapproved by the Food and Drug Administration.

According to the Times, three of the drugs named in the kickback portion of the settlement were products that were pitched to doctors at events with athletes.

Novartis payments to physicians are not currently in our Dollars for Docs database because the company won’t begin disclosing these payments until March 2011, when it is required to as part of its settlement with the Justice Department. Seven other drug companies have already been disclosing their payments to doctors, and you can see if your doctor is among them.

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