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Doctors Push Drugs for Dollars

Physicians are being paid by drug companies to promote brand-name prescriptions. Is yours?

Guarino, who made $243,457 from Cephalon, Lilly and Johnson & Johnson since 2009, considers himself a valued communicator. A big part of his job, he said, is educating the generalists, family practitioners and internists about diseases like fibromyalgia, which causes chronic, widespread pain — and to let them know that Lilly has a drug to treat it.

Favored speakers such as St. Louis pain doctor Anthony Guarino earn $1,500 to $2,000 for a local dinner talk to a group of physicians. Guarino [has] made $243,457 from Cephalon, Lilly and Johnson & Johnson since 2009.

“Somebody like myself may be able to give a better understanding of how to recognize it,” Guarino said. Then, he offers them a solution: “And by the way, there is a product that has an on-label indication for treating it.’’

Guarino said he is worth the fees pharma pays him on top of his salary as director of a pain clinic affiliated with Washington University. Guarino likened his standing in the pharma industry to that of St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, named baseball player of the decade last year by Sports Illustrated. Both earn what the market will bear, he said: “I know I get paid really well.”

Is anyone checking out there?

Simple searches of government websites turned up disciplinary actions against many pharma speakers in ProPublica’s database.

The Medical Board of California filed a public accusation against psychiatrist Karin Hastik in 2008 and placed her on five years’ probation in May for gross negligence in her care of a patient. A monitor must observe her practice.

Kentucky’s medical board placed Dr. Van Breeding on probation from 2005 to 2008. In a stipulation filed with the board, Breeding admits unethical and unprofessional conduct. Reviewing 23 patient records, a consultant found Breeding often gave addictive pain killers without clear justification. He also voluntarily relinquished his Florida license.

New York’s medical board put Dr. Tulio Ortega on two years’ probation in 2008 after he pleaded no contest to falsifying records to show he had treated four patients when he had not. Louisiana’s medical board, acting on the New York discipline, also put him on probation this year.

Yet during 2009 and 2010, Hastik made $168,658 from Lilly, Glaxo and AstraZeneca. Ortega was paid $110,928 from Lilly and AstraZeneca. Breeding took in $37,497 from four of the firms. Hastik declined to comment, and Breeding and Ortega did not respond to messages.

Their disciplinary records raise questions about the companies’ vigilance.

“Did they not do background checks on these people? Why did they pick them?” said Lisa Bero, a pharmacy professor at the University of California, San Francisco who has extensively studied conflicts of interest in medicine and research.

Disciplinary actions, Bero said, reflect on a physician’s credibility and willingness to cross ethical boundaries.

"If they did things in their background that are questionable, what about the information they’re giving me now?” she said.

ProPublica found sanctions ranging from relatively minor misdeeds such as failing to complete medical education courses to the negligent treatment of multiple patients. Some happened long ago; some are ongoing. The sanctioned doctors were paid anywhere from $100 to more than $140,000.

Several doctors were disciplined for misconduct involving drugs made by the companies that paid them to speak. In 2009, Michigan regulators accused one rheumatologist of forging a colleague’s name to get prescriptions for Viagra and Cialis. Last year, the doctor was paid $17,721 as a speaker for Pfizer, Viagra’s maker.

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