September 18, 2008
By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER — Two mental health advocacy organizations on Wednesday announced plans to lobby lawmakers for more transparency in the relationship between Vermont’s medical field and the pharmaceutical industry.
The Vermont Attorney General’s Office issues an annual report on gifts and donations from drug companies to Vermont doctors and medical professionals, but critics say there are several problems with that level of reporting.
Ken Libertoff, the executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health, said at a Statehouse press conference that a trade secret clause in state law allows some doctors to mask just how much money they receive from these companies.
Libertoff also said that the Attorney General’s report is unwieldy and impossible to use for most Vermonters. He said he will lobby lawmakers to instead create a database that can easily be accessed to determine which doctors receive gifts or donations and if so, exactly how much.
“It’s a Manhattan phone book-sized list that isn’t even in alphabetical order,” Libertoff said, holding up a computer disk from the Attorney General’s Office containing the hundreds of pages of information.
This year’s report from the Attorney General’s Office showed that Vermont doctors received $3.1 million in gifts and donations from the pharmaceutical and medical industry — an increase of 33 percent over the previous year.
But some information is not included in that report, which falls under the trade secret clause in the original law — including the identities of about 11 doctors in the state who accepted gifts totaling about $630,000 in 2007.
Dr. Thomas Simpatico, the president of Vermont Psychiatric Association, joined Libertoff at Wednesday’s press conference. He said he appreciates the report issued by the Attorney General’s Office, but agrees that a complete and more detailed report would better help professionals in the field and patients.
“It’s a valuable document,” Simpatico said. “But it is not user-friendly and difficult to do an adequate analysis when trying to decode this wealth of information.”
He said he supports Libertoff’s call to strip the trade secrets provision from state law and to transform the report into an online and searchable database. The relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and doctors is a complex issue, he added, and this information will be useful going forward.
“This is what doctors are exposed to today,” Simpatico said. “And it raises the possibility that it has some influence on their prescribing patterns.”
Assistant Attorney General Julie Brill said Wednesday that the annual report put out by her office is very informative and contains a wealth of data on the relationship between the industry and doctors. She also noted that Vermont was ahead of the curve in bringing transparency to this issue and now other states are following suit.
But she added that officials might be open to changes. In anticipation of possible new legislation when lawmakers return to Montpelier in January, internal discussions over the future of the trade secrets provision in the Attorney General’s Office have begun, Brill said.
That provision was included in the law because legislators and state officials were concerned that pharmaceutical companies would sue over its constitutionality based on case law at the time, Brill explained.
“I don’t really see a problem with putting this information online as long as it was complete,” she said. “It wouldn’t make sense to have only half of the information accessible because it could be very misleading to the public.”
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Putney, who was one of the sponsors of the original bill that became Vermont’s disclosure law, said the “trade secrets loophole” was added in during the legislative process, but he is now drafting new legislation to strip it from statute.
He said it may be a tough bill to pass next year because the pharmaceutical lobby is strong and carries influence over both major political parties.
“The bill got watered down by the well-funded pharma lobby on its way to the governor’s desk,” Shumlin said. “We have an obligation to fix this, because otherwise this disclosure is essentially useless.”
The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufactures of America, the lobbying organization that represents the pharmaceutical companies, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Libertoff, whose Vermont organization swore off pharmaceutical funding last year, said one of his goals is to “change the environment” by calling on leaders in the field to follow in his footsteps.
His concern is that the donations and gifts to doctors — which usually come in the form of dinners or trips to warmer climates for lectures or conventions hosted by the drug companies — can influence their prescribing patterns.
“We don’t want to find out next year that the industry gave $4.5 million to Vermont doctors,” Libertoff said.
Contact Daniel Barlow at email@example.com.
September 18, 2008