The state of Vermont’s annual report on industry payments to doctors shows that payments in that state have gone down significantly: total number of expenditures went down 80 percent from 2008 levels, when manufacturers reported the most payments. In 2009, the state strengthened its law to ban meals and most gifts (including gifts that PhRMA swore off in its own 2008 Code). This year’s report suggests those restrictions had a big effect on how drug companies spent their money in Vermont.

This report—and proposed amendments to the law to accommodate industry requests—has got people talking again about how disclosure and gift bans can work together, and whether the downturn in payments to Vermont docs suggests the problem is going away.

It’s like that Jake Gyllenhaal movie, right: All that pharma-rep coziness was way back in the 90s?

Well, no. Far from having gone away, there’s evidence that the problem of pharma conflicts of interest and their impact on clinical care may be getting bigger. Pharma now tops all industries, including defense, in total fraud payments paid under the False Claims Acts. And of the 150+ pharmaceutical company settlements—that’s $19.8 billion in penalties between 1991 and 2010—three quarters of both the settlements and penalties have occurred since 2006. (Check out Public Citizen’s great report on this.)

More? The two largest criminal fines in U.S. history were imposed on two drug companies in 2009 for off-label promotion, and in 2010 alone, at least five companies paid settlements of at least $100M due to marketing a product off label, paying illegal kickbacks or making misleading claims about a product. Eight of the ten largest settlements with the federal government in FY2010 were over drugs.

And despite recently endorsing conflict-free guideline writing committees, more than half of those writing clinical guidelines for the American College of Cardiology through 2008 reported financial ties to the drug industry, a 2011 study found.

But isn’t all that money for innovation and research collaboration?

Vermont’s data suggests it’s not. Before the state asked for the proverbial check on drug company wine-and-dines, meals were in some sense the main course in industry-MD relationships in VT, representing about 30 percent of the total spent by companies on docs in  2009 and accounting for 87 percent of payments that year.

Some industry voices suggest that the updates and modifications Vermont has made to the law since 2008 signal vacillation—one blog even went so far as to say it showed that lawmakers “had little idea of what they were doing when they first created the law” and weren’t accounting for stakeholders.

That’s not true, or fair. Especially since some of this year’s proposed updates grow directly from industry asks, including an exemption for market-research payments.

The legislative process is built to flex and accommodate changing realities and lessons learned, and Vermont’s gifts and disclosure laws is a great example of that, and how public disclosure can signal gaps and needs in the law.Seeing that the majority of payments were going to feeding MDs and prescribers – costs with dubious patient benefits but that get passed onto patients – helped Vermont target its law while protecting the legitimate sort of academic-industry relationships that are critical to good medical innovation. The number of companies disclosing to Vermont went down in tandem with the meals ban, and if companies left because the best thing they had to offer in Vermont was lunch, well, from a public health standpoint, that’s okay.

With the industry’s “market and let’s see what works” approach of off-label marketing alive and well, Vermont and academic medical centers across the country have provided a sensible counter-approach of evolving regulation that seeks to protect patients.

Such responsiveness makes for good lawmaking in the interest of the public health, and transparency paved the way for that lesson-based learning.  We don’t know what lessons we’ll learn from Sunshine, and that’s exactly why we need it.

–Kate Petersen, PostScript blogger