Judge upholds ban on drug data mining


Wednesday, April 29
BRATTLEBORO -- A judge's ruling last week that upholds a 2007 law banning drug companies from data mining could help lawmakers who are trying to pass a new law this session that would prevent the companies from giving any gifts to Vermont doctors.

U.S. District Judge J. Garvan Murtha last week ruled against the pharmaceutical industry, which challenged the law that prevents data mining companies from gathering prescription information from physicians.

The drug companies argued that the prescription information is used to improve health care and reduce costs and they said the law was a violation of the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

Murtha ruled that the practice known as data mining, whereby third parties look over doctors' prescribing patterns and then sell that information to drug companies, actually drives up the cost of health care and encourages doctors to prescribe more costly brand name medicines over generic drugs.

Murtha's decision was handed down in the U.S. District Court of Vermont in Brattleboro.

"Detailing leads to increased prescriptions for new drugs over generic alternatives which are often more cost-effective," Murtha wrote in his decision. "The main purpose of detailing is to increase the number of prescriptions written for the drug being promoted."

Murtha's ruling came as the Vermont Legislature is debating a new bill that restricts the amount of money and gifts that drug companies are allowed to give to doctors.

The bill would also require the companies and doctors to disclose all of the financial information and make that information publicly available.

Vermont Medical Society Executive Vice President Paul Harrington said Murtha's ruling highlights the importance of controlling drug costs using whatever legal means are available.

VMS supports the bill that will to be debated in the House Health Care Committee this week. The bill has already passed the Senate.

"Especially in these times of financial difficulty the state of Vermont is facing, any effort that could reduce the cost of prescription drugs is a step in the right direction," Harrington said. "We believe the district judge's thoughtful decision to uphold Vermont's law is one more step in Vermont's effort to reduce pharmaceutical costs."

Advancing technology allows data mining companies to collect detailed information from doctors.

And armed with this information, drug companies spent approximately $10 million marketing their drugs directly to Vermont physicians and prescribers.

The companies stand to make more money on brand name pharmaceuticals and, according to Harrington, with so much money involved in the process, doctors ultimately are encouraged to prescribe the brand name drugs over less expensive generic counterparts.

And he said the pending bill in the Legislature would prevent the drug companies from influencing physicians.

"This bill would be another arrow in the quiver in reducing drug costs in Vermont," said Harrington. "The Vermont Medical Society supports these initiatives."

In a press release last week, three of the data mining companies that challenged the Vermont law said Murtha's decision would end up costing Vermonters more money and they hinted that they might challenge the law in a higher court.

"The key to improving health care quality, and reducing costs and variability in treatment, is access to more information, not less," the companies said. "We believe today's decision was the wrong one and we are currently evaluating our legal options moving forward."

Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, D-Windham, introduced the pharmaceutical marketing bill that is being debated this week in the Statehouse.

He said Murtha's ruling clearly shows that the state is moving in the right direction in limiting the influence drug companies should have with Vermont's doctors.

"Pharmaceutical companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to influence doctors and data mining allows them to see what doctors are in fact prescribing their medicines," Shumlin said. "This ruling is a huge victory for consumers and for the need to end this insidious practice. We have crippled date mining and now we are demanding transparency."

Shumlin's bill would require all doctors in the state to report the money and gifts they receive from the drug companies and the information would be posted on a Web site.

The bill will be debated all week in the House Health Care Committee, and committee vice chairwoman Rep. Gini Milkey, D-Brattleboro, said if the bill is signed into law, the drug companies will be forced to operate in the open.

"The cost of pharmaceuticals is the fastest growing component of health care costs right now and the goal of (these companies) is to get doctors to prescribe new drugs. That's where the money is made," Milkey said. "We are not preventing them from making profits, we are just forcing them to be more creative."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reform-er.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.


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