As part of our Dollars for Docs series, ProPublica asked the seven pharmaceutical companies that have so far disclosed payments to physicians how they check the backgrounds of their speakers and consultants. Our own review of physician licensing records in 18 states found sanctions against more than 250 doctors. Some had lost their licenses.

Specifically, we wanted to know whether the firms looked up potential speakers on the websites of state medical board to determine if they had been disciplined. Only two said they routinely check these sites, even though these boards are the front-line regulators for the profession. Here is what the companies said in written statements and interviews.

AstraZeneca: Requires speakers to sign a contract in which they attest that they have not “engaged in conduct that has resulted or may result in a felony conviction” and that they are not excluded, debarred, suspended or otherwise ineligible to participate in federal health care programs, federal procurement, or non-procurement programs.

Marie Martino, the company’s U.S. compliance officer, said the company checks the exclusions database at the start of each engagement. As for checking state disciplinary actions, she said, “We check that as the need arises. If we become aware of say a media story that would raise some issue about an individual, we check first of all to see are we engaging that individual as a speaker or a consultant or in any capacity and then we evaluate that further.”

Cephalon: As part of its selection process, it checks for debarments, as well as state and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration licensure.

Eli Lilly and Co.: “Lilly strives to hold our contracted speakers to the highest ethical standards. We actively monitor — daily — federal debarment lists, including: the Health and Human Services/Office of Inspector General List of Excluded Individuals/Entities; and General Services Administration's List of Parties Excluded from Federal Programs.

“If an individual has been excluded, debarred suspended or otherwise ruled ineligible to participate in federal health care programs, we would likely catch it in our daily monitoring and terminate the contract with that individual immediately. 

“Additionally, each speaker must sign and return to us a contract stipulating that they are in good standing with licensing and other health care and legal authorities … If we are made aware that someone has been debarred, we would initiate a review process that could result in termination of the contract.

“Recently, we have also moved to institute a process to affirmatively evaluate the credentials of our speakers every other year to ensure they have maintained their qualifications to speak for the company.”

GlaxoSmithKline: “Speakers for GSK sign a contract in which they must certify that they are not excluded, debarred or suspended and that they are not about to be excluded, debarred or suspended. Exclusion and debarment checks are performed prior to contracts being sent and are rechecked each month. GSK currently limits its review to exclusion and debarment at the federal level and does not currently assess discipline at the state level.”

Johnson & Johnson: “In general, our company has developed criteria regarding speaker qualifications including: Checking with State Medical Board websites, federal exclusionary databases maintained by the Office of Inspector General and the Excluded Parties List System …

“Speakers that do not meet our requirements for participation (listed above) are removed from our speaker bureau. If we become aware of a change to a consultant’s status for qualification, he or she is removed from our speaker bureau.”

 

Merck: "As part of our evaluation of potential speakers, each candidate must review and agree to the terms of the Speaker/Moderator Agreement Letter which includes: 1) Confirming that speaking at a Merck program would not raise a conflict of interest; 2) Reporting to Merck if they are excluded from certain government programs; and 3) Merck's right to terminate a speaker's agreement for unethical behavior. We also check all candidates against the U.S. government's Excluded Parties List (EPLS), Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) and Office of Inspector General (OIG) database." 

A spokesman said the company does not routinely check physicians against state board websites. “We do background checks at the time we contract and then annually. We are currently evaluating our processes and expect to take additional measures beginning in 2011.”

Pfizer: “Pfizer ensures the healthcare providers we work with are in good standing with the Department of Health & Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG), the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA).

“Due to the disparity of available information, we currently do not actively screen against state or institution disciplinary actions, although when we learn of violations, we will review and determine whether termination of a speaker from our speaker bureau is warranted. We are continually reviewing our process to ensure we are selecting the most appropriate speakers and are currently assessing potential enhancements to our process. “

You can check here to see if your doctors have received money from these drug companies.