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Massachusetts medical gift ban on life support

Maryalene LaPonsie | July 14, 2010

By: Maryalene LaPonsie

In 2008, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a first in the nation ban of certain gifts to doctors by pharmaceutical companies and medical device manufacturers. In addition, other gifts worth more than $50 had to be disclosed. Consumer advocates hailed it as a victory for ethics and transparency. However, now, just as the first disclosure reports are scheduled to be released, Massachusetts legislators are apparently having second thoughts.

The gift ban: Does it result in lower health care costs?

It is a regular occurrence in doctor's offices and hospitals across the country. A company rep for a drug or medical device company shows up bearing gifts, literature and a polished sales pitch about why xyz is perfect for that facility's patients. Consumer protection groups argue that the sometimes lavish gifts given to health professionals encourage them to prescribe or recommend a more expensive drug or treatment when a cheaper one will do just fine.

Acting on those arguments, the Massachusetts Legislature made history when it severely limited the gift-giving ability of company reps two years ago. Among the gifts banned in Massachusetts are:

  • Theater tickets
  • Travel/vacations
  • Sporting event tickets
  • Pens and similar small promotional items
  • Food served outside a doctor's office/hospital
No more schmoozing over dinner. No more travel junkets. No more pens emblazoned with the company or drug name . Supporters of the ban reason that without the lingering memory of that trip to the Red Sox game over the weekend, health professionals are more likely to make unbiased decisions that will promote low cost health care options--and with lower health care options, you may see lower health insurance premiums.

Doctors, pharmaceutical reps and--the convention industry?

So, who or what is trying to kill the medical gift ban? Hint: it's not doctors who are missing their free perks. No, one of the major opponents of the medical gift ban is the convention industry. The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology is moving the location of its 2015 convention from Boston, citing the medical gift ban as the reason. Their decision has touched off rampant speculation that other groups will follow suit and take their convention business elsewhere.

With an expansion to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center being planned, legislators are apparently concerned that investment in the center is jeopardized by the medical gift ban. In what seems to be the prevailing sentiment in the Massachusetts House, Representative Garrett Bradley was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "The law runs counter to everything we have been working toward with the convention center." Not wanting to be left out, the restaurant industry adds that it has seen profits slump since the ban was enacted.

Of course, the pharmaceutical companies aren't doing cartwheels over the ban either. Many companies have reduced or stopped making visits to Massachusetts doctors and hospitals. In addition, rather than promote low cost health care, the industry argues that the gift ban has increased administrative costs and is actually counterproductive.

The Massachusetts House passed a repeal of the gift ban as part of an economic development bill. It has been sent to the State Senate where some political observers believe it will receive a chilly reception. Meanwhile consumer advocates are left scratching their heads, wondering why after not even two years, the ban wasn't given a fighting chance to make a difference for residents and doctors in the state of Massachusetts.

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