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Don’t pay doctors without disclosure, ACCC tells drug companies

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Drug companies would be banned from giving benefits or gifts to any doctor who does not agree to full public disclosure, under changes the consumer petition watchdog wants made to the Medicines Australia proposed code of conduct.

In a draft determination issued last month, the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission said that a provision in the code allowing companies to withhold information where there is no doctor consent to its release seriously compromised the reporting regime.

“The ACCC is concerned that the benefit from the reporting of individual disclosures of transfers of value will be threatened if there is incomplete information, and anything less than universal disclosure may significantly reduce the potential benefits of the regime,” the draft determination said. “Without knowing what has and has not been reported, it will be difficult to use or rely upon the information that has been reported. This fundamentally undermines the transparency objectives of the regime.”

The draft ruling is a setback to attempts to update Code of Conduct, which has been the subject of regular consultations between Medicines Australia, the AMA and other medical and consumer groups.

In its latest version (edition 18), the Code will require member companies to report on “transfers of value” (gifts, fees and benefits) made to individual practitioners, including the names of each recipient, as long as they consent to the disclosure.

The Code also includes a $120 limit on the value of meals provided to doctors by drug companies.

The ACCC said the Code was “likely to result in public benefits, including protecting the public from inappropriate advertising…and providing the potential for greater transparency around the relationships between pharmaceutical companies and health care professionals”.

But it said the provision that disclosure only occur with the consent of the health professional amounted to a “serious flaw” in the transparency regime.

The watchdog said it was proposing to require Medicines Australia to amend the Code to “in effect, require members to ensure, before making any transfers of value to health care professionals, that they will be able to report those transfers”.

Medicines Australia has told the ACCC that the change would discourage some doctors from participating in conferences and other educational events, diminishing health outcomes for patients and creating an uneven playing field within the drugs market.

But the regulator said it was “not persuaded” that it proposed change would prevent doctors from receiving critical information about medicines.

“In particular, member companies can offer events that do not require reporting, and health care professionals can self-fund to attend third party conferences,” it said.

But, despite its concerns, the ACCC has granted the Code a conditional five-year authorisation and has indicated that it may allow the Code to go through without its proposed changes.

The regulator said that although it is able to impose conditions on the authorisation, “it is not for the ACCC to construct and impose its ideal or preferred system of self-regulation”.

Nonetheless, it warned, authorisation “does not represent ACCC endorsement of a code”, merely protection from legal claims invoking net public benefit.