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Medical Gift Law Faces Possible Repeal

Fri, 07/16/2010 - 7:20am

Lyle Moran, Associated Press Writer

Two years after passing a law that required medical companies to disclose some of their gifts to doctors and banned others, there is a push in the Legislature to strike down the law.

The 2008 law banned giving away sporting event tickets, tickets to the theater and vacation trips. It also required pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers to report any gifts to doctors, hospitals, nursing homes, pharmacists and other health providers over $50 to the state's Department of Public Health. Violators face fines of up to $5,000.

The House passed an economic development bill last week that would eliminate the medical gift law. The Senate approved a version of the bill that maintained the law. A conference committee made up of members from both chambers will produce a final bill.

Supporters say the law prevents pharmaceutical groups from encouraging doctors to prescribe expensive brand-name drugs rather than generics, which leads to a rise in premiums and overall health care costs. The average generic drug costs $35.22, while the average "designer" medication costs $137.90, according to the Massachusetts Prescription Reform Coalition.

Georgia Maheras, the coalition's manager, said there is a health care cost crisis in the state, and overturning the medical gifts law would damage efforts to rein in those costs.

"This would be a significant step backward on that front," she said. Opponents say the law has stifled pharmaceutical clinical research in the state and had an adverse economic impact on convention centers and restaurants. Sen. Richard Moore, chairman of the joint committee on health care financing, said overturning the law would be a "travesty."

"We are trying to promote cost containment and ethical behavior," said Moore, D-Uxbridge. "This repeal would bring us back to the old days when physicians were wined and dined, which gave pharmaceutical groups inappropriate influence." Maheras said that since the law was enacted, some doctors have been limiting their interactions with pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Others have declined to let their representatives into their offices at all.

But pharmaceutical groups argue that the law has forced them to spend more on administrative costs and less on research.

Marjorie Powell, a lawyer for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, a national group, said the law also could prompt pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies to move to other states.

"I think the disclosure laws add a level of complexity that adds into a company's decision of where to locate," Powell said.

Rep. Garrett Bradley, D-Hingham, supports overturning the law because he says it has deterred pharmaceutical conventions from coming to Massachusetts. "The law runs counter to everything we have been working toward with the convention center," he said.

The restaurant industry also has voiced its support for overturning the ban because it says the law has eroded their profits. The law bans pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers from paying for doctors' meals anywhere but doctor's offices and hospitals.

The law went into effect July 1, 2009. The first reports were due to the state's Department of Public Health by July 1 of this year. The agency hopes to have the reports online by the fall.

Moore said he would never support overturning the law and noted that its full effects haven't even yet been determined.

"One year is hardly enough time to show if any progress has been made and if the proper compliance is being followed," he said.

Keeping the law in place is essential to Massachusetts' health reform efforts, said Rep. Alice Wolf, D-Cambridge.

"The rising cost of health care is the main unfinished business of our health care reform," Wolf said. "This is one piece of that."

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