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Payments to Doctors by Most Pharma Companies Still Remain Secret

Consumers concerned about drug company payments to their doctors will have to wait until 2013 for physician payment data from all pharmaceutical companies to be made publicly available.

Oct 28: This post has been updated.

Though an investigation we published yesterday showed that hundreds of doctors with disciplinary records or limited credentials are on the payrolls of major pharmaceutical companies, consumers hoping to know more about the payments that aren’t in our database will have to wait until 2013 for such disclosures to be made industry-wide.

That’s because only seven of the more than 70 pharmaceutical companies operating in the United States have made disclosures about the doctors they pay to consult and promote their drugs, and new disclosure rules [PDF] included in the health care reform bill don't require the companies to report such payments to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services until March 2013. The government has until the end of September 2013 to make the information public and searchable.

In the meantime, data from all seven companies currently posting payments—AstraZeneca, Cephalon, GlaxoSmithKline, Eli Lilly and Co., Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Pfizer—are publicly available in ourDollars for Docs database, which includes payments made in 2009 and 2010.

Of the seven, only two—Merck and GlaxoSmithKline—have done so voluntarily. Another four—plus a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson—have been required to make the disclosures as part of legal settlements with the federal government to resolve lawsuits alleging fraudulent marketing practices. (Clarification: An AstraZeneca spokesman said that the company had in May 2009 announced plans to voluntarily disclose doctor compensation beginning August 2010. According to spokesman Tony Jewell, the company had made the announcement with "no idea at the time" that an April 2010 settlement agreement with the Justice Department would later require such disclosures.)

As we’ve noted, the seven companies together account for about 36 percent of U.S. prescription drug sales. While that’s a sizeable share of the market, it suggests that there are many more payments from other drug companies that consumers don’t yet know their doctors are receiving.

The top 15 pharmaceutical companies in the U.S., for example, together comprised 68 percent of the prescription drug market in 2009. Most of those companies aren’t disclosing physician payments, though one, Novartis, will begin doing so by March 2011, thanks to a settlement reached this fall with the Justice Department. (Allergan and Forest Laboratories, two companies not in the top 15, will also begin making disclosures next year as part of such settlements.)

But the rest may have to wait for a provision in this year’s health care reform legislation known as the Physician Payments Sunshine Act to take effect.

The measure, originally proposed by Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Herb Kohl, D-Wis., requires companies to disclose all speaking fees, consulting fees, research, grants, stock options, gifts, entertainment, food, travel, education, and charitable contributions given to doctors—or else face civil penalties between $1,000 to $10,000 for each payment that was unintentionally left unreported. (Those penalties will be capped at $150,000 per year.) Intentional failures to disclose will cost the companies even more—anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000—but those fines are capped at $1 million each year.

The Sunshine Act also requires companies to report the doctor receiving the payment, the doctor’s address, the payment date, and the drug or device that the doctor helped promote. That’s more than what any of the companies are currently disclosing, if you check our compliance chart.

Most of the top 15 companies, asked why they’re not doing voluntary disclosures like some of their peers, either declined to comment, didn’t respond to our request for comment, or responded by pointing out other information that they’re currently disclosing, such as grants for education or donations to medical organizations.

Some companies told us they’re gearing up to comply with the Physician Payment Sunshine Act but don’t yet have a specific time frame for doing so, even though several of their peers in the industry are making disclosures early, and some even voluntarily.

“I’m not going to comment on what other peers in industry are doing,” Scott Davies, a spokesman for Abbot Laboratories, told us. “We currently do comply with everything we need to comply with, and we will be complying with the Sunshine Act when it comes time. I can’t give an earlier time frame for doing that.”

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