Thursday, June 08, 2006

US Congressional Travel Paid for By Big Pharma

Per MarketWatch, in the data released about US Congressional travel paid for by various private interests was information about such travel financed by the biggest pharmaceutical companies. "Members of Congress and their staffs took at least 48 trips worth $84,000 paid for individually by the top five drug companies between Jan. 1, 2000 and June 30, 2005, with GlaxoSmithKline leading the list." Other prominent travel funders were Pfizer and Merck. MarketWatch apparently did not address travel funded by smaller device companies, or by other health care organizations.

Specific trips included 16 staffers traveling to a GlaxoSmithKline facility in Belgium, three legislators to Brazil also sponsored by GSK, and a trip by one law-maker to Puerto Rico sponsored by GSK, Pfizer and Lilly. Legislators who traveled on drug company money included those especially involved in the Medicare Part D bill, including Senator John Breaux (Democrat - Louisiana), former Representative Billy Tauzin, who is now the CEO of the pharmaceutical trade group PhRMA, and former Representative Jim Greenwood, who is now President of the Biotechnology Industry Group.

"By organizing the trips, drug companies can help lawmakers and their staffs take 'the mystery out of complicated technology and specialized research,' Ken Johnson, vice president of communications at Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), said in a statement. But consumer groups and government watchdogs feel otherwise, believing it gives corporate officials access to lawmakers that ordinary voters can't get. 'They're designed to give company lobbyists time with congressional staff and cement relationships,' said Allison Allina of the National Women's Health Network. "

There is a growing movement, with which I agree, against physician acceptance of even small gifts (including travel) from pharmaceutical companies. There is evidence that even such small conflicts of interest can affect physicians' decision making. (See post here. Unfortunately, that same movement sometimes ignores the other conflicts of interest that can affect physicians, and the conflicts of interest that can affect others with the power to make decisions about health care.)

But a gift to a law-maker responsible for health care legislation can have a much larger effect on the health care system than a similar gift to a particular physician. Gifts to legislators, while currently legal, should generate as much, if not more concern than gifts to physicians.

If you are in the US, write your Congresspeople and suggest much more rigorous regulations of their own conflicts of interest.

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