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Law barring gifts for doctors at issue

Citing economy, House OK’s repeal

By Chelsea Conaboy
Globe Staff / April 27, 2011

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Massachusetts was among the first states to regulate financial relationships between physicians and the makers of drugs and medical devices, passing a law in 2008 that banned most gifts from the companies and required them to report payments to physicians. For the second year in a row, however, House members have voted to repeal the law, saying it hurts the economy.

By a bipartisan vote of 128-22, the repeal was added to the 2012 House budget proposal yesterday. Supporters argued that the ban has not helped to control health care costs as expected, but has hurt convention centers and restaurants where companies typically hosted physician events and dinners.

“I think this is stifling business,’’ said Representative Garrett Bradley, a Hingham Democrat who sponsored the measure.

Bradley said doctors have told him that the law limits their ability to learn about new treatments and that companies feel at a disadvantage in Massachusetts. He would rather see such conflicts regulated at the federal level. The Affordable Care Act includes requirements that certain payments to doctors be made public, but these provisions have not gone into effect.

Foes of repeal point to plans for expanding the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center as evidence that the hospitality industry is not struggling under the ban. By mid-March, the state had collected about $607 million in meals taxes for fiscal 2011, which ends in June, which was 9 percent more than at the same point last year, according to the Department of Revenue.

“The only thing that’s being hurt is the ability of the drug industry to market their high-priced drugs by wining and dining doctors at our expense,’’ said Brian Rosman, research director at Health Care for All, a consumer group that championed the law because of concerns that such gifts influenced doctors to prescribe expensive drugs.

The House voted last year to repeal the ban by adding the measure to an economic development bill. Senators blocked the measure, and they are set to vote on their budget next month.

House lawmakers proposed several budget amendments to roll back the gift ban. Bradley’s goes the farthest, Rosman said. The measure would repeal a ban on gifts to physicians, as well as the requirement that companies publicly report payments of at least $50 to physicians and other health providers.

The state released the first round of data in November. Hundreds of companies reported paying health care providers a total of $35.7 million in the second half of 2009. Of that, $16.4 million went to physicians, with the highest paid receiving between $150,000 and nearly $200,000.

Gift-giving gives pharmaceutical companies an upper hand, said Eric Campbell, research director at the Mongan Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital.

If repealing the law gives a little boost to restaurants and other businesses, he said, “does that become more important than ensuring the accuracy and the integrity and the quality of the information that health practitioners receive?’’

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@globe.com