Legislators move to tighten rules for drug companies

1:50 AM, Jan 26, 2010   |    comments
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Prescription medication capsules and tablets

Saint Paul, MN -- Minnesota lawmakers are moving to tighten rules for drug company direct marketing to physicians and other health care providers. Among three bills offered up Monday at the State Capitol was a bill banning pharmaceuticals from collecting records of what individual doctors are prescribing.

"They actually know exactly what your doctor is prescribing, so if they can move to get your doctor to prescribe their brand," Pete Wyckoff, a longtime health care consumer advocate and drug industry watchdog told reporters.

"And so it's almost like a third person sitting in that examining room, influencing your doctor to prescribe more of what their company is doing or to switch to their brand," he asserted.

Extracting that information from individual providers, known as "data mining," is often used for research. Wyckoff said it's increasingly used by pharmaceutical companies to pinpoint their sales efforts in the field.

"After all, these 90,000 pharmaceutical reps have one major objection, and that's to press and to sell the drugs of the manufacturer they represent."

Kim Witczak, appearing at the same Capitol news conference, has very personal reasons for lobbying for the bill.  Her 37-year-old husband, Woody, committed suicide in 2003 while taking the anti-anxiety drug Zoloft provided by his doctor.

She said Woody had no history of depression or mental illness, but had gone to see his doctor about insomnia issues associated with a new job. The physician gave him a sample packet of Zoloft supplied by Pfizer, as part of the company's standard promotional efforts.

"The sample pack Woody came home with automatically doubled the dose after week one," she said, "But there was no warning given to him about the to be need to be closely monitored, when first going on this drug or when dosages change."

She told reporters Woody began experiencing severe side effects such as akathisia, which is marked intense restlessness and agitation. They didn't suspect the drug as he began to spiral downward.

"We tried many times during this period to find out why Woody suddenly changed from sleeplessness to having all these new problems," she recalled, "He came home one day and told me his head was outside his body, he sat on the floor. He said 'Help me Kim, help me! It's like my head's outside my body looking in'."

Woody hung himself from the rafters in his Minneapolis garage, five weeks after starting on the Zoloft sample packet. Kim Witczak has since become an advocate for reining in aggressive marketing of drugs to physicians through her Woody Matters website.

"Doctors need unbiased information that includes all research information available they know on the risks of the drugs they are prescribing," Witczak said.

One of the bills would set up a statewide program to give physicians nonbiased information about the drugs they're prescribing, so they can consult a reliable source that's independent of the manufacturer. Another measure aims to strengthen gift laws, to more fully disclose financial relationships between doctors and companies that make prescription drugs and medical devices.

A spokesman for a drug industry lobby group in Washington told the Associated Press such research would be threatened by such crackdown.

"The package of legislative proposals could have a chilling effect on Minnesota's life sciences industry," Marjorie Powell, the general counsel for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said Monday.

Powell estimated the industry supports 49,000 jobs in Minnesota.

The reform effort has the backing of several major health groups, labor unions and consumer organizations. Those include the AARP, Allina, UCare, HealthPartners, Park Nicollet, Minnesota Nurses Association, the National Physicians Alliance and the Minnesota AFL-CIO. 

(Copyright KARE 2010. All rights reserved)

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