A bill, introduced today in both House and Senate, would have the federal government go head-to-head with the pharmaceutical industry’s 100-thousand-or-so sales reps.

The Independent Drug Education and Outreach Act of 2008 provides grants for the creation of unbiased educational materials for doctors. And another set of grants funds pharmacists and nurses to take that good information to the doctors in their offices.

Office calls work. That’s why they are the preferred sales tactic of industry. So it makes sense that governments and others who actually foot the cost of prescription drugs should adopt the same tactic, albeit with the goal of encouraging the use of the best, safest, most cost-effective drugs.

This idea, sometimes called “academic detailing” has been around for at least 20 years. Programs are well established in other countries and in several states. Australia and Pennsylvania have model programs. Kaiser Permanente has its own long-established initiative. The evidence shows that such programs not only improve patient outcomes, they also produce net savings – by one estimate two dollars is saved for every dollar invested. See our related Senate testimony here.

But it is also important to note that these programs are not mainly about cost savings; they are about providing good information. Sometimes that even means encouraging more use of pharmaceuticals. And doctors who have a chance to participate generally appreciate having a source of information they can trust.

IDEA is being sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA), and in the House by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ). Both the Prescription Project and the National Coalition for Appropriate Prescribing support passage of this bill.

The IDEA Act allows for public payors and non-profits – those free of pharmaceutical industry funding – to apply for grants. That means a new potential source of funding for state programs, such as the one Massachusetts is likely to pass today [tune in tomorrow for more on that]. The Congressional Budget Office should score this bill. The House and Senate should pass it quickly. We have neither time nor money to waste.