- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 11, 2010

Pharmaceutical companies no longer court doctors with tickets to sporting events and lavish trips, but one of the nation’s largest drug manufacturers deployed a squad of sports figures to get physicians to play ball.

Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp, a part of Swiss-based Novartis AG with $44.3 billion in revenue in 2009, relied on a lineup of baseball Hall of Fame members, including Bob Gibson and Johnny Bench, professional football players such as New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, coaches and other top athletes as lures to get doctors to attend dinners where the company would pitch its products.

The athletes were expected to give short speeches at the dinners, answer questions about their careers and then pose for individual photos with the 50 to 100 doctors in attendance. Novartis marketing representatives later would bring the photos when they went to call on the doctors to sell their products.

“I hope someone at the company got a fat bonus, because this is one of the most clever schemes I’ve seen to provide gifts to doctors,” said Paul Thacker, an investigator for the nonpartisan watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, who probed the financial relationships between doctors and drug companies while working for the Senate Finance Committee.

“If you shove a bag of cash in a doctor’s pocket, he might feel like a common streetwalker, but if you give him a picture of his childhood idol, then he might feel like everyone is just being pals,” said Mr. Thacker. “Of course, the company wasn’t doing this to be friendly. They were doing it to push for more prescriptions. And you don’t need an advanced degree from a medical school to figure that out.”

Novartis paid $3.6 million in fees to 150 top former and current sports figures — from $8,000 to $35,000 an appearance, according to documents obtained by The Washington Times. In some instances, the athletes and coaches signed memorabilia the doctors brought with them. The program ran from 2006 through 2009.

Dr. Jerome Kassirer, a professor at Tufts Medical School and an expert on the conflicts between physicians and the drug industry, described Novartis’ use of the athletes as “a new one to me.” He called the practice a “kickback.”

“They [the drug companies] will do anything to attract doctors to meetings to promote their drugs,” said Dr. Kassirer, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. “They [the doctors] are clearly taking some kind of gift, the dinner or the photo or the prestige of meeting with the athlete in exchange for sitting through and listening to a pitch.

Novartis declined to comment on specifics of the athlete-speaker program, citing pending litigation with the Nelson Group, the marketing firm it hired to put on the events.

“Novartis is committed to promoting its products in an ethical and compliant manner and has developed corporate guidelines and procedures to help ensure that all promotional activities and programs meet the applicable requirements by the FDA and other regulatory agencies,” said a Novartis spokesman.

On Sept. 30, Novartis agreed to pay $36.5 million to settle Justice Department civil claims that it paid illegal kickbacks to doctors to induce them to prescribe five of their drugs, resulting in false claims being submitted to Medicare, Medicaid and the other federal health care programs.

The Justice Department said that from Jan. 1, 2002, to Dec. 31, 2009, Novartis paid the kickbacks “through mechanisms such as speaker programs, advisory boards and gifts, (including entertainment, travel and meals), to health care professionals to induce them to promote and prescribe the drugs,” according to the settlement.

While the settlement does not single out the dinners with athletes, those events were used to help promote three of the drugs that are part of the Justice Department kickback claim. Novartis disputed the civil claims, but agreed to the settlement without making any admissions.

‘Harder and harder’

Novartis turned to athletes to help its sales in 2006 after the company and others were having trouble attracting doctors to their marketing events.

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