Kane In Your Corner: NJ doctors got $50M from drug companies

Pharmaceutical companies paid New Jersey doctors more than $50 million last year for things like speaking fees, expensive dinners and free travel, a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds, and some New Jersey doctors rake in a quarter of a million dollars a year. The payments are legally allowed, but some medical ethics experts say the arrangements raise significant concerns about whether the medications being prescribed are best for their patients, or most profitable for their doctors.

Memories are all Jessica Wolfsohn has of her mom, Lucia Patrone. "My mother had a great smile," she recalls while looking through family photo albums with News 12 New Jersey's Walt Kane. "When she smiled, it was like the sun was shining."

In 2007, Patrone's doctor put her on a blood pressure medication called Benicar, distributed by Daiichi Sankyo, a Japanese pharmaceutical company with a US headquarters is in Parsippany. A few years later, Patrone began to develop serious gastrointestinal issues, including vomiting and diarrhea. She died in November, 2014. Her daughter is now one of 1,500 people suing Daiichi. Wohlfson's lawsuit claims Patrone died of side effects of the medication and the company showed "willful and wanton disregard" to her mother's health.

"It destroyed her life, it destroyed the lives of myself and her family, and it was preventable," Wohlfson says.

"We would like this litigation to shine a light on pharma company practices that hurt people," says her attorney, Adam Slater.

The Benicar case is a symbol of what some call the dark side of America's prescription drug industry. While there are also other issues involved in the litigation, Daiichi is one of many pharmaceutical companies that compensated doctors to promote its products. It's also one of several pharma companies that paid millions to the US Department of Justice to settle allegations that its "speakers bureau" amounted to illegal kickbacks to doctors. The feds said some of Daiichi's doctors were compensated for giving "speeches" to "audiences" that consisted of their own office staffs, or spouses. 

"The companies know that if they want to sell their drugs, the best way to do it is to pay doctors," Slater says bluntly.

Pharmaceutical companies are legally allowed to compensate physicians for speaking engagements, travel and meals, and doctors who receive the money are not required to notify patients, even when they prescribe medication for which they are compensated. Since July of 2013, the payments do have to be reported to the government, so they can be published in the "Open Payments" database, which is accessible to the public.

But some medical ethicists, including Art Caplan, director of the Center for Medical Ethics at New York University, say the system needs further reform. Caplan says a doctor who takes pharmaceutical company money are "basically becoming a salesperson for the company," adding that "the patient ought to be able to trust that you're acting in their best interest, and not worrying about 'Is this going to irritate the drug manufacturer? Am I going to lose that trip to Cancun'?"

Thursday: Meet two New Jersey doctors who've received hundreds of thousands of dollars of pharmaceutical company money. How do they explain the arrangements? Do they disclose them to their patients? 

Is your doctor taking pharmaceutical company money? Find out by checking the government's Open Payments database.

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