Last week, Maine’s governor signed LD719 into law, repealing a series of pharma transparency laws including one that required drug companies to report certain marketing costs, including meals and gifts to physicians. I talked with Maine representative and director of the National Legislative Association on Prescription Drug Prices Sharon Treat (D-Hallowell) to find out what this repeal means for her state, the wider transparency landscape, and what we might expect next.

PS: There’s been a lot of action on the state front again at the end of this budget season. Massachusetts protected its gifts ban from some aggressive repeal threats, and now Maine has repealed its disclosure law. Maine’s move doesn’t seem to reflect a bigger consensus. What do you see happening at the state level?

ST: The new Republican governor and majority in the Maine Legislature have together now repealed not only the state’s gift disclosure law, but nearly every progressive prescription drug policy we have, including our pharmacy benefit manager (PBM) law, and pricing transparency.  This is not surprising as there are very close ties between the pharmaceutical industry and the Republican party in Maine. None of these laws were easy to pass in the legislature even when Democrats had the majority, because the drug industry is very powerful when it comes to influencing politicians.

I don’t think the repeals reflect a change in what the public thinks.  In fact, I doubt if most Maine people have any idea what’s been repealed.  This session a lot of attention was focused on proposed repeals of many of our environmental laws, and in that case the public uproar stopped the rollbacks from going forward.  In the case of the pharmaceutical laws, there aren’t strong consumer advocacy groups in the state that have taken up these issues, partly because so many other social policies are on the chopping block at the same time.

PS: There’s a lot of talk about state Medicaid budgets these days. Why is disclosure an important piece of the cost equation, to your mind?

ST: Maine’s gift and advertising disclosure law was enacted originally because legislators wanted to know how much was being spent by the pharmaceutical companies on promotional activities, since the industry claimed that drug prices had to be high in order to support their R & D activities.

The information gathered showed that advertising and promotion outspent R & D.  It helped make the public case for reducing high drug prices.  Then, as the data was collected, more public attention was paid to conflicts of interest and the role of gifts and payments in driving prescribing of the highest priced branded drugs.  It helped open peoples’ eyes to larger issues of safety and appropriateness of prescribing.

Maine also had a law, also just repealed,  that directly collects drug price data from the pharmaceutical companies and requires a person with authority to certify the truth of this data. This independently collected information was a direct help to the state in negotiating very favorable rebates and limiting pricing fraud under the Medicaid “best price” requirement (nationally major drug pricing fraud cases are common).  Maine gets a return on average of about 50 percent of its Medicaid drug spend back in rebates, and having this check on drug company pricing reports has helped avoid fraud and keep our Medicaid prescription drug budget in line, with minimal increases over the years.

PS: Your colleague, physician Linda Sanborn, also supported the Maine transparency law, and state physician groups have supported similar bills and laws elsewhere. Have you heard from Maine physicians on the repeal, and next steps?

ST: Dr. Sanborn spoke eloquently in the floor debate about the need to have public disclosure of the clinical trials data- another law that was repealed.

Fortunately, federal laws will eventually pick up the slack on both the clinical trials database and reporting on gifts and payments, but the Legislature’s majority did not support even linking our state website to the federal databases.  All of the Democrats on the Health and Human Resources Committee strongly supported these laws and spoke to the issues.

The physician groups were most active trying to prevent the repeal of the academic detailing program, which they are now very involved with implementing.  Although the funding was reduced, this program did stay alive in part because of their advocacy.

In terms of next steps, it would be foolish to try to reverse these repeals with the current Legislature and governor.  If Maine people want a different result (and understand what has happened) then they will elect different people the next time around.

I was actually shocked that so many legislators who ran for office on platforms of preventing fraud and abuse passed two laws that repealed effective anti-fraud laws– the PBM law repeal and the pricing disclosure law. These repeals will hike the costs of the Medicaid program (as confirmed by the Legislature’s fiscal office in the fiscal note on the legislation).

PS: Transparency of industry marketing relationships with prescribers isn’t going away. Taking the long view, what can we expect next?

ST: I think we will see a more active media in Maine looking into the federal doctor payment databases and the financial links between big pharma and Maine politicians.  I expect that there will be more awareness going forward about these conflicts of interest.  My hope is that this awareness will once again lead to taking action with public support and a more receptive legislature and governor.

–Interviewed by Kate Petersen, PostScript blogger