One of the provisions of the ever controversial Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare) is the creation of a website that allows the general public to search a database of pharmaceutical company payments to physicians, called the Open Payments Data website (click here). For those who may be blissfully unaware – and as outrageous as it may seem to those who are aware – it’s common practice in this country for pharmaceutical companies to line the pockets of the physicians who prescribe their products by way of cash payments given out largely as consulting and speaking fees. Mind you, for the most part these payments are perfectly legal, but it does make one wonder just how objective even the most well-meaning physician can be when making decisions that involve choosing between the products of the drug manufacturers whose money they accept versus those of their benefactor's competitors. This ethical quagmire is often described quite politely as a potential “conflict of interest”.
The NMSS helpfully provides lists of the “Scientific Peer Reviewers” who advise the Society on decisions regarding which research projects are worthy of support (click here). Plugging the names of these peer reviewers into the Open Payments Data website reveals what I think is some enlightening information. First, though, please let me illustrate just how much money the pharmaceutical companies that sell MS drugs pay to physicians in efforts to promote their wares. On a drug by drug basis, the following list details the amount of money that made its way from pharmaceutical company coffers into the pockets of MS doctors in the five months spanning August-December 2013. Naturally, the list excludes drugs that have been approved since 2013. I gleaned this info from the Pro Publica website (click here), which provides detailed numbers derived from the database compiled by Open Payments Data:
· Aubagio $3.4M
· Avonex $775.8K
· Betaseron $510.8K
· Copaxone $4M
· Gilenya $682.2K
· Rebif $856.6K
· Tecfidera $2.2M
· Tysabri $1.4M
· TOTAL $13,825,400
Your eyes are not deceiving you, the pharmaceutical companies paid MS doctors who prescribe their drugs $13,825,400 during the last five months of 2013 alone. Again, this is all publicly disclosed data, and such payments are perfectly legal. Call me crazy, but I can think of only one non-expletive that can adequately describe that number: Yikes!
Now, moving on to the NMSS and its peer reviewers; the National Multiple Sclerosis Society utilizes nine standing committees to review research grant proposals for MS research. As previously noted these committees are comprised not only of physicians, but also PhD researchers as well as lay experts in various related fields. It should be noted that the Open Payments Data website contains only information on pharmaceutical payments to licensed physicians, so while the PhD researchers who sit on these committees might occasionally benefit from pharmaceutical company largesse, such payments wouldn’t show up in the database. It should also be emphasized that the physicians on the following list are not evil people; far from it, they are simply professionals legally taking part in an insanely dysfunctional medical system. I'm sure that those who actively treat patients care deeply about those patients. I’ve even had the occasion to meet one or two of these doctors, who I would without hesitation describe as quite brilliant. Still, the pernicious influence of pharmaceutical company money can’t be discounted, even if it works only on a subconscious level.
The two committees I chose to investigate are those that include licensed MDs and which seemed most likely to play a role in making decisions on human stem cell trials. Here then, a list of MD peer reviewers who sit on NMSS advisory committees who accepted pharmaceutical payments from August through December 2013, and the amount of money they received. These totals exclude any funds paid for medical research efforts:
MDs On The NMSS "Research Programs Advisory Committee" Who Received Pharma Money
· Dr. Bruce Cohen, Northwestern University Medical School – $224.87
· Dr. Anne Cross, Washington University – $4311.28
· Dr. Stephen Hauser, UCSF – $4184.86
· Dr. Mary Hughes, Neuroscience Associates – $13.62
· Dr. Aaron Miller, Mount Sinai School of Medicine – $26,855.11
· Dr. Michael Racke, Ohio State University Medical Center – $5733.86
MDs on the NMSS "Clinical and Translational Research Committee" Who Received Pharma Money
· Dr. Laura Balcer, University of Pennsylvania – $2281.36
· Dr. Bruce Cree, UCSF – $74,965.41
· Dr. Philip Dejager, Brigham and Woman's Hospital – $15,294.97
· Dr. Edward Fox, MS Clinic of Central Texas – $76,760.44
· Dr. Omar Khan, Wayne State University – $112,964.52
· Dr. Andrew Pachner, UMDNH-New Jersey Medical School – $29,995.44
Yes, in the mere five months covered by the records of the Open Payments database one of the NMSS research committee physicians received over $112,000 from pharmaceutical companies, two received over $74,000 each, and two more received over $25,000 each. When considering these numbers, ask yourself whether you would trust the recommendations of a film critic who was found to be receiving generous payments from some of the movie studios which produced the films he was reviewing? Would you allow that critic to decide which scripts should be greenlighted and made into movies if you knew that some of those scripts might in some way damage the profit-making abilities of the studios from which he was receiving payments? Me neither.
I’ve often railed that the NMSS should immediately stop accepting funding in any form from the pharmaceutical companies, if only to avoid even the slightest hint that those funds might influence the Society’s actions. I’m confident the goodwill generated by the Society taking such a public stand would far outweigh any financial hit they might incur, and in fact would be priceless. After looking into the pharmaceutical monies received by physicians who serve with the NMSS in research decision-making capacities, I find myself aghast at my discoveries. Even if the doctors involved are nothing but well-intentioned, as I’m sure they are, I would think it impossible that the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars they receive from pharmaceutical companies would have no influence on their decision-making process, perhaps even only on a subconscious level. If these payments didn’t result in tangible benefits for the pharmaceutical companies making them, they wouldn’t be made. Large corporations are not in the habit of handing out millions of dollars a year for no good reason. This may be good business, but it makes for bad medicine.
I urge the NMSS to immediately institute a policy forbidding physicians who sit on any of their decision-making committees from accepting pharmaceutical monies for any reason. The confluence of the interests of for-profit corporations with the clinical practice of medicine and medical research cannot be anything but corrosive. These practices will only stop when we as patients and those who love us rise up and demand action. It’s horrendous enough to be stricken with a dreadfully heinous disease intent on robbing those it attacks of their very humanity; to find oneself simultaneously caught in the misguided, tangled mess that is the modern medical industrial complex can crush the soul. It’s time for those of us stricken with MS to make our voices heard, to make a stand and demand that the largest MS advocacy organization in the world take the initially painful but ultimately crucial steps towards living up to their mandate; to not preserve the status quo but instead eradicate once and for all the fetid scourge of multiple sclerosis, a mission I fear impossible when done in concert with corporate entities whose own legal mandate is to turn illness into industry.
The contact number for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society is 800-344-4867. A list of the NMSS senior leadership team, including email links, can be found by (clicking here). I would ask that all opinions expressed or inquiries made be done so in as civil a manner as possible, making pains to avoid personal attacks. The goal is not to antagonize, but to foment change that would benefit both the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the patients it is meant to serve.
I leave you with the following brilliant piece of video from the HBO TV program Last Week Tonight, featuring John Oliver. This incisive and hilarious segment illustrates better than I ever could just how insane is the current state of Big Pharma/physician relationships. Please, please watch, learn, and enjoy…