No Drug Left Behind
By Mike SeccombeApril 29, 2013
The Greens health spokesman, Dr Richard di Natale, is looking to widen the reach of draft legislation intended to bring greater transparency to the largesse provided to health professionals by drug companies.
Senator di Natale flagged the changes after a hearing today into his proposed legislation by the Senate Finance and Public Administration committee.
Originally, the bill would have required the publication of the names of doctors in receipt of payments, gifts or other benefits from drug companies.
But, having received the submissions and heard evidence from several academic health experts, notably La Trobe University Professor of Public Health Dr Ken Harvey, Senator di Natale said the bill would be amended to ensure it covered all therapeutic goods suppliers, not just drug companies, and all health professionals, not just doctors.
“It was always intended to apply to all therapeutic goods,” he said, “but what was more ambiguous perhaps was the question of which health care professionals would be covered and how they would be defined.
“I think it’s reasonable to use the Australian Health Practitioners Registration Agency definition, and that includes doctors, pharmacists, nurses, physios, chiropractors et cetera – anyone who’s registered under the AHPRA scheme.
“And it would include all therapeutic goods, not just drugs but devices. Your artificial hips, your cardiac pacemakers, that sort of equipment.”
At the moment Medicines Australia, the peak body representing many of the drug companies, reports aggregate spending by drug companies in a limited range of areas, essentially “educational events” for medical professionals.
Under heavy government pressure, it is working on a new code, which would individually disclose at least some payments.
But some drug companies, such as those that produce mainly generic drugs, are not part of Medicines Australia and do not abide by even this limited code. There also are eight other industry associations, with varying codes of conduct, which reveal almost nothing about benefits provided to health professionals.
Senator di Natale’s bill would provide uniformity under law. But the therapeutic goods suppliers, drug companies and doctors insist a voluntary code will suffice.
Senator di Natale said he was encouraged that some of the drug companies – he instanced GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) – and the main doctors’ organisation, the Australian Medical Association (AMA), had shifted their position on individual disclosure.
“In the past the AMA has been absolutely opposed, on the basis that publishing the names of individual doctors could damage the reputation of the medical profession, but under [new AMA president] Dr Steve Hambleton, that has shifted,” he said.
Yet the AMA, like the drug companies, remained adamant that legislation was unnecessary.
“This is one of the themes that came through loud and clear, that Medicines Australia and GSK and all the industry groups were absolutely committed to self-regulation, even when it didn’t produce the outcomes that they said they thought were necessary,” the senator said.
“In the case of some of the big generic makers, the attitude is ‘Stuff you, we don’t want to be held to any code’. So we have Medicines Australia members saying they think self-regulation will work for them, but also saying they don’t think it’s working with the other bodies and their codes.”
Asked whether he would ever support an alternative proposal, such as Professor Harvey’s suggestion of industry codes, underpinned by government legislation enforcing membership of those codes, Senator di Natale said he remained open to further changes, and was committed to the outcome of transparency, not the means of ensuring it.
As to the likelihood of either of the major political parties falling in behind his proposal, he sounded dubious, particularly when it came to the Opposition committee members.
“Scott Ryan, the Coalition Senator who is deputy chair, is a former employee of GlaxoSmith Kline, so I’m not overly optimistic about him,” said Senator di Natale.