Merck has announced it will begin publishing payments it makes to doctors in the fourth quarter of 2009, the Financial Times reports today. The announcement makes specific the drug giant’s Sept. 2008 promise to begin to publish speaking payments to doctors this year.  The Times says the Merck announcement marks “the latest escalation in efforts by drugs companies scrambling to seize the initiative on reforms to a system that has come under intense criticism for potential conflicts of interest, triggering growing legislative and regulatory pressure for change.”

One major source of legislative pressure is the Physician Payment Sunshine provision, which has appeared in both House and Senate health reform bills. The Sunshine provisions, modeled on the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, would require drug and medical device companies to disclose payments to physicians, hospitals, and medical schools on a single, publicly-searchable online database.

Despite uncertainty about other components of health reform, Pew Prescription Project Director Allan Coukell told the Times we can be “pretty confident drug and medical device companies will be required to make public payments to doctors.”

The transparency provisions have gained wide support over the past several years as undisclosed millions given by drug companies to academic researchers and clinicians have come to light through court cases and Congressional investigations.

“The scale of funding and legal actions has made the issue particularly prominent in the US, although similar concerns have been expressed in many other countries including the UK, with the Royal College of Physicians this year calling for a ban on drug company gifts to doctors and support for medical training,” writes the Times.

Since the Sunshine Act was introduced two years ago, a handful of large drug and device companies have announced voluntary disclosure measures similar to Merck’s, including Medtronic, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, and GlaxoSmithKline. (Some have been obligated to do so under corporate integrity agreements entered into in court settlements.)

For more, visit the RxP Sunshine Act Guide.