The Wall Street Journal last week revealed allegations from a sealed 2002 lawsuit against Medtronic that depict an extraordinary menu of kickbacks paid to doctors who used the company’s medical devices. The Journal’s account of the complaint filed by plaintiff whistleblower Ami P. Kelley is a real read-it-to-believe-it: A doctor who counted his surgeries as billable consulting hours, an Alaskan fishing trip dubbed the “think tank” – fishing gear and accommodations provided, and claims that the Minneapolis-based company picked up the tab for regular “VIP visits” by its physician cadre to the Platinum Plus strip club in Memphis, Tenn. (The joint was later busted on a prostitution charge.)
Medtronic settled with the U.S. government in 2006 over Kelley’s suit and settled a related suit for $40 million. The company told the Journal that it has since cleaned up its act. To which we say: let’s hope so.
But the newly-revealed allegations undercut the common industry line that boating trips and big resort junkets for doctors are merely marketing mishaps, extinct and mythic as the Dodo bird. The alleged fish-poling and pole-dancing took place as recently as 2001. It’s safe to assume that many of the executives who oversaw the program are still at the company. And the doctors are still in practice, still using Medtronic devices.
That’s why we need a federal disclosure law, such as the Physician Payments Sunshine Act now being considered by Congress, to provide a clearer picture of the problem and the players. In a standardized, annual and – perhaps most importantly – public fashion, a federal disclosure law might be what’s needed to raise the profile of physician-industry relationships enough to deter companies from providing doctors the kinds of bogus consulting contracts and outrageous frills like those alleged in the suit.
PS. Did we mention the $15,000 spent on Mardis Gras beads for docs riding on a float in a New Orleans parade?