Friday, April 11, 2008

US: Drug Companies to Reveal Grant Practices

For years, the nation's largest drug and medical device manufacturers have courted doctors with consulting fees, free trips to exotic locales and sponsoring the educational conferences that physicians attend.

Those financial ties in most cases need not be disclosed and can lead to arrangements that some say improperly influence medical care.

Now, under the threat of regulation from Congress, the two industries are promising to be more forthcoming about their spending. A dozen of the nation's leading drug and device makers have told Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, that they have plans or are working on plans to publicly disclose grants to outside groups. The details will be provided on each company's Web sites.

Watchdog groups say the companies are trying to derail legislation that would require public disclosure of their giving.

''If they were doing this out of the goodness of their heart, they would have done so decades ago,'' said Dr. Peter Lurie of the consumer group Public Citizen.

Of particular interest to Grassley, top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, is the money companies spend on continuing medical education. Physicians attend such conferences to fulfill their license requirements and to keep up to date with the latest treatment trends. Professional associations and companies frequently ask drug and device makers to help pay for the conferences. Recently, Grassley asked 15 companies whether they planned to follow the lead of Eli Lilly & Co., which now discloses its grants to such programs.

''If your company does not yet have any efforts or plans in place, please explain why not,'' Grassley wrote.

The responses are in. They are wide-ranging but mostly what the senator wanted to hear. Indeed, many of the companies said they would go beyond disclosing grants for medical education. Some companies said they would also disclose payments to patient advocacy groups such as the American Heart Association or the American Diabetes Association. Boston Scientific said it was developing a system that even discloses certain payments to physicians.

Medtronic Inc. said it will post payments for professional meetings and patient groups on its Web site beginning May 1. AstraZeneca PLC said it would do the same on Aug. 1, providing the amount spent and the purpose of the financing. AstraZeneca gets 4,000 to 5,000 grant applications each year and funds about a third of them.

Merck and Co. was vague about its plans, but committed to the concept. ''We are currently in the process of developing an action plan,'' the company wrote to Grassley.

Amgen Corp. and Abbott Laboratories said they had formed working groups to determine how to compile and display their grants.

Schering-Plough Corp., however, told the senator what he didn't want to hear: ''We do not publish or have plans at the moment to publish a list of charitable contributions or educational grants that medical organizations have received from us.''

Grassley said, overall, he was happy with the responses.

''The way these companies are making information about financial relationships open to scrutiny is the right thing to do,'' he said.