Vermont Considers Disclosing Free Prescription Samples

10/27/09 5:30PM By John Dillon
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AP Photo/Toby Talbot
PHARMA Attorney, Marjorie Powell
(Host) Vermont is looking at whether drug companies should disclose when they give free samples to physicians.

Opinions differ on whether it's a good idea. Doctors say the free samples help low income patients. But other say the gifts can have a corrupting influence on the practice of medicine.

VPR's John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) Vermont already has tough regulations on drug companies. State law bans free meals and drug companies are required to show how much they spend to market their products.

But the Legislature in the last session left one big question unanswered. Should the state try to regulate the common practice of drug industry dispensing free samples to doctor's offices?

Lawmakers asked the attorney general's office and the health care reform commission for advice. A hearing on the issue drew a packed crowd of lobbyists and advocates.

(Powell) "PHARMA is opposed to any requirement that says a company must report the value of samples because there is by definition no value to samples."

(Dillon) Marjorie Powell is a lawyer for PHARMA, the national lobby for the drug industry. Powell says the samples have no value because a doctor's can't re-sell them. She says samples help doctors try out new treatments.

(Powell) "Samples are intended so that the doctor and the patient can determine whether a particular medicine will work for the patient."

(Dillon) Lyn Raymond-Empey represents 10 clinics around the state that serve people without health insurance. She says the free samples are a big part of providing care for low income people. But she says additional regulations over the past few years have limited supply.

(Empey) "And so we are very concerned for our patients. We're concerned for our budgets. And we want to be able to continue to treat them and provide the care as a safety net provider in the state of Vermont for them. But the more we lose the supply, the more difficult it gets."

(Dillon) But others testified that drug companies give away free samples not from altruism, but for marketing. Steffie Woolhandler is a primary care physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. She testified by phone about her recent studies on free samples. She says it's a myth that samples go primarily to low income people.

(Woolhandler) "The drug industry goes around and places samples in practices where they think they will find paying customers, because, of course, they are marketing tools. And they will go to private doctor's offices in affluent areas and that's where they leave the samples."

(Dillon) Other physicians said it was wrong to demonize the industry. Doctor Edward Trerrien works at the Fletcher Allen Medical Center in Burlington. He said additional disclosure is unnecessary.

(Trerrien) "I think that all this does is it makes - pick your company, Pfizer or whoever - sound like they're bribing physicians."  

(Dillon) But Ken Libertoff of the Vermont Association for Mental Health said the state should ban the free samples.

(Libertoff) "I think it has limited benefits. I think people would be amazed at the amount of money, the worth of these samples, pouring into Vermont without any notion of how it impacts prescribing practices."

(Dillon) Attorney General Bill Sorrell said his office is considering whether the free samples should be disclosed to the state. And if the gifts are disclosed, Sorrell said the next question is if that information should be kept confidential, or released to the public at large.

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.


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