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Dollars for Docs Mints a Millionaire
Drug payments » New data show drugmakers’ payments to hundreds of thousands of doctors, and some have made well over $500,000.


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Overall, roughly half the payments were for research. A third went to speakers and the rest was for consulting, educational materials, meals and travel.

For Some Docs, An Earnings Drop

At a glance

Utah doctors paid $25.8 million by drug companies

Drug companies have made $25.8 million in payments to Utah doctors since 2009 for research, consulting, travel and entertainment — a common practice, the scope of which is only now becoming clear and causing uneasiness in medicine.

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The push for transparency on physician payments started years ago.

Studies began showing that even trinkets doled out by drug sales reps could affect physician attitudes. At the same time, drugmakers were settling federal lawsuits alleging that they paid kickbacks and encouraged doctors to push drugs for unapproved uses. Two U.S. senators began calling out prominent physicians for not properly disclosing financial ties to the companies.

Dollars for Docs took transparency a step further by putting the available payment disclosures in one place and making them easy to search.

In 2010, many universities and teaching hospitals were surprised to find that their faculty members were engaged in promotional speaking. ProPublica compared the faculty lists of institutions with conflict-of-interest policies barring such speaking with the database and found a number of physicians in violation.

Drug firms, too, learned of problems with their chosen speakers. ProPublica found their rosters peppered with some physicians who had serious disciplinary actions against their medical licenses.

Both the drug companies and academia tightened their policies.

Only a handful of doctors who were among the 20 highest-paid in 2010 have maintained their level of income from speaking, the new data show.

Ten of the doctors dropped from making about $100,000 a year to less than $20,000 in 2012. Some doctors whose payments declined spoke about drugs the companies are no longer pushing. Others, like prominent cancer expert David Rizzieri at Duke University School of Medicine, faced new restrictions from their employers.


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Rizzieri had been a speaker for Cephalon, GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis in 2010 and 2011. But after Duke restricted participation in speakers’ bureaus, his speaking pay dropped markedly in 2012, the new data show. All told, Rizzieri has received at least $567,300 in speaking and consulting payments since 2009.

Dr. Ross McKinney Jr., director of the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities and History of Medicine at Duke, said university officials "had multiple discussions" with Rizzieri, who "is getting more restrained."

McKinney said Duke physicians can deliver paid talks about diseases, but only if they use their own slides and presentation materials. "The general tone is a little bit more distant and less cozy than it used to be," he said.

In an email, Rizzieri said he still did some paid speaking that is allowable within Duke’s new guidelines, but has focused his attention on a series of educational talks developed by the Division of Cellular Therapy at Duke.

New Drugs, New Dollars

Drug companies say their spending often reflects market realities — not a changing opinion on the use of physician speakers. Should a top-selling drug lose its patent, allowing cheaper generics to compete, there’s no impetus to push sales. A new drug or a new approved use for an existing drug, conversely, may prompt a burst of speakers.

New York’s Forest Laboratories, for example, is a fraction the size of its Big Pharma brethren Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Merck.

But when it comes to paying doctors to promote its products, the drugmaker has recently dwarfed its rivals.

During the first three quarters of 2012, Forest spent $31 million on doctors who touted the virtues of such drugs as Bystolic for high blood pressure, the antidepressant Viibryd, and Daliresp for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Nine doctors each made nearly $100,000 from Forest in that time alone, the data show.

Pfizer — whose U.S. sales are five times greater than Forest’s — spent a fifth of Forest’s total, paying out $6.2 million to promotional speakers during the same period. AstraZeneca, second to Pfizer in sales, spent $12.2 million.

Forest spokesman Frank Murdolo said in an email that the company spends more on speakers because it doesn’t use pricey direct-to-consumer TV marketing. It also has more new drugs than its competitors, Murdolo said.

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