Processing Magazine

Lawmakers Push Pharma-Free Drug Pitches

March 12, 2008
According to the Associated press, drug sales representatives may face new competition in hospital halls and doctor offices -- from the federal government.

Several states have launched educational campaigns to counteract drug company promotions, which urge doctors to prescribe the newest -- and often most expensive -- medications.

The corporate-free pitches come as local governments try to manage health care costs of retiring seniors and climbing costs of prescription drugs. One way to do that, some state and federal officials say, is to urge doctors to prescribe cheaper drugs, including low-cost generics.

Democrats in Washington, wary of federal health care costs, are pushing for a counter-pharmaceutical campaign at the national level. A proposal in the works by Sen. Herbert Kohl, D-Wisc., would pay academic medical centers to create objective literature on prescription drugs.

The materials, Kohl said, could be an antidote to the heavy dose of promotional pitches that push doctors toward the newest, most expensive drugs -- which are not always the most effective.

His bill, which also has support of Dick Durbin, D-Ill., would also pay nurses, pharmacists and other health professionals to present the academic materials to doctors.

The measure, which is still in draft form, does not specify a dollar amount for the program, but would almost certainly fall below industry''s drug marketing budget. The pharmaceutical industry spends about $19 billion on promotions to doctors, according to one estimate in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A drug industry group said Wednesday it doesn''t oppose the measure, but questioned the role of politicians in promoting drugs.

Kamp pointed out that many private health insurers, including Kaiser Permanente, already run similar counter-drug promotion programs.

The California health insurer uses drug education coordinators to teach physicians about the most appropriate, cost-effective prescribing options.

An executive from the insurer is scheduled to testify Wednesday at a Senate Aging Committee hearing on counter-drug promotion.

Kaiser''s Ambrose Carrejo is expected to tell lawmakers that the company saved money and protected its patients by minimizing its use of the pain relievers known as Cox-2 inhibitors.

The drug class, which includes Merck & Co. Inc.''s Vioxx and Pfizer Inc.''s Bextra, were widely adopted in the first part of the decade on evidence that they were easier on the stomach than aspirin.

But Kaiser found few real benefits to the high-priced medications, and kept prescriptions below 5 percent compared with lower-cost pain relievers. A few years later, Vioxx and Bextra were pulled from the market after showing links to heart attack and stroke.

Lawmakers will also hear from public health advocates arguing that the federal government must educate physicians to control Medicare drug benefit costs. The government spent an estimated $47 billion on the new program last year.

Advocacy groups for seniors have long complained about the costs of prescription medications.

Last week the AARP estimated the average price of medications most often prescribed to seniors grew 7.4 percent in 2007. The increase was about 2.5 times overall inflation, continuing a long-standing trend.