Kane In Your Corner: Doctors defend pharmaceutical payments

Some New Jersey doctors are taking home hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra income from pharmaceutical companies, a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds, but they are not personally informing their patients about the arrangements, even when they write prescriptions for medications for which they are paid to speak. In fact, some of the larger recipients of these "drug deals" don't seem to want to talk about them at all.

Dr. Pankaj Bhandari was not happy when News 12 New Jersey's Walt Kane caught up with him outside a medical office building in Jersey City. Federal records show Bhandari took home more than $400,000 in compensation from pharmaceutical companies in the past three years, including more than $200,000 in 2014 alone. That ranks him among the larger recipients of pharma payouts in the state. Even though federal law classified these payments as public records as of July 2013, Bhandari clearly did not like being questioned about his. 

"I think it's inappropriate for you to approach people in this manner," Bhandari complained.

"You know we wanted to interview you," Kane replied. "We've been calling you for months. Why haven't you returned any of our calls? 

Bhandari walked briskly into the office building, bringing the interview to a quick end.

By law, doctors may take compensation from pharmaceutical companies, usually in the form of speaking fees, meals and travel, as long as payments are disclosed to the federal government's Open Payments database. But some leading medical ethicists believe patients deserve more than that. "I think the doctor has a duty to say, 'I'm prescribing this for you, I'm on the payroll of the company,'" says Arthur Caplan, head of the Center for Medical Ethics at New York University. Caplan says doctors can also make a short affirmative statement about the medication if they wish, such as "I believe in the drug."

But some studies show drug company money may help doctors believe. A recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found even one free meal makes a physician more likely to prescribe a certain medication. 

New Jersey psychiatrist Rakesh Bansil gets a lot more than a free meal. In 2015, drug companies paid him more than $245,000, federal records show. That's on top of more than $200,000 in 2014. Records show Bansil received 313 separate payments last year, an average of more than six payments a week. In 2014, he received 372 payments, an average of more than one a day. Bansil also did not return calls, so Kane In Your Corner caught up to him in Newark, where he was giving a speech paid for by the pharmaceutical company Otsuka.

At first, Bansil said he always told his patients that he was paid by drug companies whenever he prescribed a medication made by one of those companies. But under questioning, he later admitted that was not the case, and that he actually only discloses payments to the government database. Asked if his patients have a right to know that a medication he is prescribing them is one that he has received compensation for speaking about, Bansil replied, "It is anybody's right to go on the (Open Payments) website and look it up."

Bansil also insisted he does not "endorse or not endorse a given drug" when he lectures. "I educate people about the data," he says.

That argument, while commonly made by physicians who are paid by the pharma industry, is hard to swallow, according to Adam Slater, an attorney who specializes in medical litigation. "They're not going to have the incentive to tell the full story," Slater says. "They're going to have the incentive to toe the party line." In fact, Slater says the "scripts" and graphic presentations for speeches doctors give are generally written for them by the pharmaceutical companies themselves.

A spokesperson for Otsuka says: "Collaboration between physicians and biopharmaceutical professionals is critical to improving the health and quality of life for patients," adding: ""While the perception of conflicts may always exist, Otsuka believes that transparency is a step toward reducing this perception, and has devoted substantial time and resources to comply with the reporting requirements of the Sunshine Act," the law that created the Open Payments database.

If you want to know how much money your doctor gets from the pharmaceutical industry, you can search the Open Payments database at: https://www.cms.gov/openpayments/

However, the database is still incomplete. Some drug companies hire "medical education firms," which in turn hire the doctors. Those indirect payments do not have to be reported until next year.

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