The state's largest consumer, health care and senior organizations are deeply disappointed that House members voted to repeal the Pharmaceutical and Medical Device Gift Ban and Disclosure Law, commonly known as the gift ban, during yesterday's budget debate.
Included in health care cost containment legislation passed in 2008, the gift ban law is an important consumer protection law aimed at driving down our highest-in-the-nation, spiraling health care costs. The law reins in Big Pharma's aggressive marketing tactics by banning gifts and/or payments of more than $50, including restaurant meals and entertainment, to physicians from drug and medical device companies. The law also established strict disclosure rules requiring that all financial arrangements between pharmaceutical and medical device companies with prescribers in the state be disclosed on a website maintained by the Department of Public Health.
The repeal of the gift ban law, included in a consolidated Public Health Amendment, would now mean that drug and medical device companies can spend unlimited dollars on gifts and restaurant meals to prescribers, calling into question the integrity of doctor-patient relationships. Gifts and other payments from the drug and medical device industry would also no longer have to be reported and publically disclosed.
"Nothing should come between the patients and their physicians. In order for patients to have confidence in our health care system, they need to know that the treatment plans recommended by their doctors were not influenced by fancy dinners or gifts," said Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, Executive Director of Health Care For All, "Repealing our state's gift ban law would not only increase health care costs, but also put relationships between doctors and their patients in jeopardy."
The gift ban does not outlaw all contact between sales representatives and physicians - doctors are still free to work with the industry toward innovation and attend educational meetings with meals as long as such meetings occur within the provider settings or if the prescriber pays for his or her own meal at a restaurant.
The ongoing effort to weaken or repeal the gift ban law is not led by physicians or patients, but by the Massachusetts Restaurant Association and the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.
"Bottom line: Consumers should not have to pay for the free lunches that drug companies feed prescribers," said Bill Johnston-Walsh, state director of AARP Massachusetts, which represents more than 800,000 members age 50 and older in the Bay State. "We are disappointed that the Massachusetts House eliminated an important tool to help rein in spiraling health care costs, especially when there is no evidence that the gift ban law has hurt other industries - and at a time when consumers are still struggling to afford the medicine they need to stay healthy and out of more expensive care."
Deirdre Cummings, Legislative Director for MASSPIRG, said "The House of Representatives sided with the Pharmaceutical industry over consumers when they repealed the Prescription Drug and Medical Device Ban as part of the House Budget. Massachusetts banned Big Pharma from picking up the tab for wining and dining our doctors for good reason -- because we ultimately end up paying that bill in the form of more expensive, often unnecessary drugs. With our state already paying some of the highest health insurance premiums in the country, this action is clearly counterproductive."
The Restaurant Association claims that the limits imposed on the wining and dining of physicians has cut into their profit margins. Although restaurant receipts were down in 2008 and 2009, so were sales in virtually every industry because of the global economic recession. As the state emerges from one of the largest economic crises in history, restaurants have seen their business pick back up. In fact, according to the most recent data released by the Department of Revenue, restaurants are on track to have their best year ever in 2012, up more than $18 million so far over 2011 revenues. Restaurant revenues in 2011 were also up by more than $33 million over 2010 numbers.
Additionally, opponents of the gift ban have said it hurts biotech convention businesses and prevents the industry from doing business in Massachusetts. However, the facts show that these predictions have not come to pass. In 2012 alone, more than 50 medical-related conventions have been held or are scheduled to take place in Massachusetts. The BIO International Convention, the industry's largest convention, will be coming back to Boston in June 2012. Massachusetts has also had its best year to date for biotech venture capital in 2011, beating the 2010 historic high.
The next step is on to the Senate, where advocates for preserving the law will urge Senate members to uphold the existing gift ban law and not put industry profits before patients' health and their pocketbooks. At a time when government, businesses and consumers are focused on improving health care quality and controlling costs, the very last thing the Legislature should be considering is repealing the gift ban law.