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Drug Company Payments to Doctors Raise Concerns of Conflicting Interests

Thousands of Texas doctors, researchers and medical experts — including more than 100 who are employed by the state and are paid with taxpayer dollars — routinely supplement their salaries with income from pharmaceutical companies.

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Thousands of Texas doctors, researchers and medical experts — including more than 100 who are employed by the state and are paid with taxpayer dollars — routinely supplement their salaries with income from pharmaceutical companies.

Drug companies pay medical professionals for a wide range of activities, from speaking engagements to consulting. While legal, the practice raises questions about potential conflicts, and whether the interests of patients may be compromised.

Between 2009 and early 2011, at least 25,000 Texas physicians and researchers received a combined $57 million — and probably far more — in cash payments, research money, free meals, travel and other perks, according to data culled from 12 drug companies and provided by the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica.

Dozens of these medical professionals were paid more than $100,000 each during that period. And 114 were professors, physicians, psychiatrists or researchers who were already paid a salary by the state — in some cases more than a half-million dollars a year. These state employees brought in nearly $3 million combined from pharmaceutical companies between 2009 and early 2011, according to a Texas Tribune analysis of ProPublica data.

Nationwide, pharmaceutical manufacturers routinely pay medical professionals to assess a new product or to help contribute to the drug company’s sales. The companies fly medical professionals to seminars and conferences and often pay speaking fees. State-employed doctors and researchers are generally no exception, though they are supposed to comply with their individual institutions’ conflict-of-interest policies.

“It’s important to state out of the gate the importance of these interactions, the value they bring to physicians, to health care professionals in general and ultimately to patients,” said Karl Uhlendorf, vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

But the financial relationships raise questions about the influence of drug companies on prescribing patterns or research results. The practice “puts patients and tax dollars at risk,” said Lee Spiller, the policy director for the Texas branch of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights, a nonprofit mental health watchdog. “It taints the whole process. I’d hate to think donations were shaping state mental health policy in particular.”

Top 10 Texas Pharmaceutical Payment Recipients - 2009 to Early 2011
According to ProPublica's Dollars for Docs data
Jain, Rakesh Psychiatrist Lake Jackson, TX $364,884.00
Osborne, John Cardiologist Grapevine, TX $321,750.00
Barnes, Nathaniel Urologist Houston, TX $265,680.00
Griffin, James Dale Anesthesiologist Dallas, TX $248,362.00
Bailes, Joseph Switz Oncologist Houston, TX $247,003.00
Sharafkhaneh, Amir Associate Professor, Baylor College of Medicine Houston, TX $235,919.00
Nett, Robert Burton Pain Management Specialist San Antonio, TX $230,498.00
Brams, Matthew Child Psychiatrist Houston, TX $217,690.13
Bost, Brent Gynecologist Beaumont, TX $212,735.83
Weissler, Jonathan Professor, UT Southwestern Medical Center Dallas, TX $203,200.00

Dr. Stanley Self, a part-time psychiatrist at Texas’ state-run Rusk psychiatric hospital, earns $166,000 a year from the state. He was also paid at least $145,000 from drug companies between 2009 and 2010, largely for speaking engagements. Self did not return calls seeking comment on his work for drug companies, but his receptionist said he is “not doing much of that anymore.”

Christine Mann, a spokeswoman for the Department of State Health Services, said agency employees like Self are allowed to hold a second job as long as there is not a conflict of interest. The agency “is looking into this issue further and will examine its policies to see if there are provisions that need to be strengthened,” Mann said.

Dr. Joseph Bailes, an oncologist and the vice chairman of the executive committee at the Cancer Research and Prevention Institute of Texas, earned roughly $250,000 between 2009 and 2010 as a consultant for Pfizer. Bailes said he has advised Pfizer on Medicare policy — not on drug development — and that it has no bearing on his role with the institute, a $3 billion endeavor financed by voter-approved bonds, for which he is an “unpaid volunteer” specializing in efforts to bring new cancer therapies to market.

“It doesn’t influence anything I do,” Bailes said, adding that his committee is not responsible for selecting projects for financing.

Combined Pharmaceutical Payments to State Employees, by University
2009 to Early 2011
EntityTotal Receipts
The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas $1,002,804.47
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center $819,824.36
The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio $386,246.7
The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston $194,964
University of Texas Medical Branch $163,129
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center $53,981
The University of Texas-Pan American $49,629
University of Texas at San Antonio $5,821
Texas A&M University System Health Science Center $4,000
Texas A&M International University $3,494
Lone Star College $1,500
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi $1,126

Dr. Stanley Lemon, who left his post as the director of the University of Texas Medical Branch’s Institute for Human Infections and Immunity in April and is now at the University of North Carolina, made nearly $80,000 consulting for Pfizer between 2009 and 2010. Lemon, who is still an adjunct professor at UTMB but is no longer on the state payroll, said consulting for the pharmaceutical industry has enriched his academic life and made him a more productive scientist.

“As long as they are properly reported and do not engender conflicts of interest or commitment, such interactions between industry and academia help to move drug development forward in a positive way,” Lemon wrote in an e-mail.

The analysis of Texas pharmaceutical payments comes as the state attorney general’s office prepares for a mammoth trial in January against Janssen Pharmaceuticals and its parent company, Johnson & Johnson. Janssen, which has vigorously denied any wrongdoing, has been accused of offering trips and kickbacks to state health officials to get the schizophrenia drug Risperdal on an approved drug list for medications that are paid for by the state.

Across the country, the reporting of such perceived conflicts has traditionally fallen short. Companies have not been required to disclose payments, and medical institutions have made limited efforts to police their employees.

The ProPublica data covers just a portion of drug company payments — it represents about 40 percent of the 2010 pharmaceutical market in the United States — and includes manufacturers that have either begun disclosing their payments voluntarily, or as a result of legal settlements.

Beginning in March, federal law will require drug and device companies to report and disclose all of their payments to medical professionals and researchers; by September, the data is supposed to be displayed in a searchable online government database. Texas universities — whose doctors and researchers account for $2.7 million of the pharmaceutical money statewide between 2009 and early 2011— are working to update their own conflict policies and monitoring systems.

The University of Texas System will require its faculty members to report every dollar they are paid by a drug or device manufacturer and all financial interests in their research beginning Jan. 1.

The UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas is working on an electronic conflict-of-interest filing system that will feed into a soon-to-be-released public disclosure Web site, said Tim Doke, UT-Southwestern’s vice president for communications.

“We’ve been working feverishly here for the last couple of months,” Doke said. “Transparency is the absolute key to the public being confident that conflicts that exist are being managed appropriately.”

At UT's MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, university administrators monitor drug company databases to ensure that faculty-conflict filings match, and to set limits on how much doctors and researchers can accept, said Dr. Raymond DuBois, the center’s provost and executive vice president.

But such efforts at transparency vary widely depending on the institution, or may be nonexistent when there is no institution at all. State records show that of the 74 doctors and psychiatrists statewide who have routinely prescribed the highest number of costly antipsychotic drugs to patients on Medicaid, the joint state-federal health insurance program for the disabled, children and the very poor, 10 received payments from drug companies between 2009 and 2011 —from $11,000 to $180,000 each.

All but one received the payments from the manufacturer of the drug they most commonly prescribed.

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