Let the Sunshine In, Let the Sunshine In

A GlaxoSmithKline representative came by to drop off samples in my office and asked if there was anything else they could do for us. GSK makes some inhalers so I asked if they could supply spacers to give to patients, something they used to do. Spacers come in different designs, but basically it’s a plastic tube that fits between an inhaler, such as albuterol, and the mouth. The extra distance causes the medication particles to get smaller, so they deposit deeper in the lungs. The spacers are relatively inexpensive, probably less than the cost of the inhaler for a week, and can last years, but because insurance companies usually don’t cover them, patient’s usually don’t get them. Handing one out in the physician office is a good way to get patients to use one, plus the proper use can be demonstrated in the office.

The representative said that his company was not giving the spacers, and in light of the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, doubted they would. This proposed regulation of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), part of Section 6002 of the Affordable Care Act, stipulates that, effective 3/1/12, that pharmaceutical companies report payments to physicians over $10. It makes no difference whether the spacers are for the physician, or their patients.

The purpose of the Physician Payment Sunshine Act is to discourage physicians from making prescription decisions based on financial inducements. Just to be clear, pharmaceutical companies don’t just give physicians cash to prescribe their medications, which would clearly be immoral, if not illegal, but can give other incentives in the form of meals, books, speaking fees, etc. In this case, however, the reporting requirements are not consistent and don’t make sense. They don’t have to report leaving samples of their inhaler, which costs far more than a spacer, but they would have to report the spacer, even though it could be used with inhalers made by other manufacturers. Although in balance I like having samples, they tend to encourage one to prescribe them since we don’t have generic samples. I think insurance companies would save money providing free generic samples, but that’s another story.

The bill was introduced by senators Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Herb Kohl, D-Wisconsin. As recently reported by 60 Minutes, congressmen can legally trade on insider information, so this law was hypocritical (in fact I see that only 25% of the Sunshine Act sponsors senators are sponsoring the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act  S.1871 or S.1903 bills) . But as physicians we are ‘Hippocratical‘ and hold ourselves to a higher standard. That said, I think there are many instances where it’s legitimate for physicians to accept items of value from pharmaceutical companies.

The science of medicine advances at a fast rate, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to keep up to date. This is true for specialists, and even more so for primary care physicians. The majority of medications I prescribe every day were not available when I was a resident in training. One way I help stay up to date is to listen to pharmaceutical representatives, or physicians they bring in, while I eat a meal they provide. There is no quid pro quo agreement to prescribe their medications, and many a rep can attest that I frequently challenge what they say. But what they do get is some of my time and a chance to present information that ultimately may benefit my patients. True, there are other ways to get the information, but time is the problem. I have to eat, so that’s a good time to talk. Listening to top physicians they’ve flown in, and having the opportunity to ask questions, is very valuable. I also participate in research trials (needed to create new medications), and those fees will show up in the database. The act would not make such payments illegal, but the concern is that the public will not be able to put the numbers in context and it may incorrectly imply impropriety.

Physicians and other providers do need to be careful they are not unduly biased by pharmaceutical companies, and I have a lot of concerns about pricing manipulations of medical drugs, but when it comes to the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, I think it’s pointing a light at the wrong place, or at least with too broad a beam.

About Daniel Ginsberg, MD, FACP

I'm an internal medicine physician and have avidly applied computers to medicine since 1986, when I wrote my first medically oriented computer programs. So yes, that means I'm at least 25-years-old!
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