As you may have read by now, the Massachusetts House has voted to repeal a chunk of its first-in-nation gift and meal ban, spurred on by cries from the state restaurant lobby. The law, which bans drug companies from treating Bay State physicians to some gifts and restaurant meals, aims to check the potential for conflict of interest inherent whenever pharma picks up the tab.

No matter that state numbers show restaurant revenues are up nearly 10 percent over last year (see here), or that drug companies are moving their operations into town (see here and here and here). Or that despite the ban, new state payment data suggests drug companies didn’t seem to lose face time with Massachusetts docs – companies paid individual docs $16.4 million in the last half of 2009 alone.

“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,’’ Health Care for All’s Brian Rosman told the Boston Globe.

But a concerted push by the Massachusetts restaurant industry seems to have swayed House lawmakers, who, by a wide margin, voted last week to repeal the part of the law that prevents drug, device and biotech companies from footing physicians’ bill at restaurants. (Companies are still permitted to bring docs lunch in their offices for “educational” presentations.)

An editorial in the Globe yesterday says the legislature shouldn’t chip away at the law. It’s not just that such meals are medically unnecessary. “But there’s also an unsavory conflict of interest in doctors being feted by drug companies and then turning around and prescribing the companies’ drugs to their patients. Are the prescriptions really necessary? Are the drugs really the most effective treatment?”

Many doctors insist their professional judgment cannot be bought with fancy meals. But if wining and dining didn’t work, the drug industry wouldn’t spend $6 billion a year on direct marketing to physicians. The Legislature should send the repeal amendment and similar attempts to weaken the gift ban back to the kitchen.
In characteristic color, Newburyport psychiatrist and blogger Daniel Carlat agrees.
Yes, commoners escape workplace demands by going home at 5 or by taking a stroll through a park during lunch. But doctors need raw oysters and wine after a hard day of work—plenty of it, free, and with fawning pharmaceutical reps complimenting them on their knowledge of vintages.

Hopefully the State Senate will realize that Massachusetts doctors have stronger ethical compasses than Massachusetts politicians, who since 2009 have been barred from receiving anything of value from lobbyists. Lawmakers are, indeed, vulnerable to inappropriate influence from meals and other gifts. But physicians would never prescribe more Abilify after enjoying a steak dinner funded by Bristol-Myers Squibb. After all, they’re doctors!

The Massachusetts Senate is due to vote on its budget later this month. For more on industry-physician interactions visit Community Catalyst’s resource page and the Physician Payments Sunshine guide.

–Kate Petersen, PostScript blogger