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Drug firm hired athletes, luring doctors to play ball
Novartis paid sports figures for speeches
“Over the years, it got harder and harder to get physicians to come to the informational dinners,” said Rooney Nelson, whose company, the Nelson Group, was hired by Novartis in 2006 to put together the dinners with athletes. In a three-year period, the company put on more than 250 events, ending in 2009.
He said his firm provided the athletes and physician speakers and arranged for the restaurants, some of which were high-end. He said his firm would pay the expenses and then be reimbursed by Novartis.
Mr. Nelson, who is suing Novartis over $538,000 in bills he said were unpaid, recalled that the number of doctors attending the events went from a handful to more than 70 once the athletes were involved.
The 150 athletes paid by Novartis included baseball Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage, outfielder Lou Brock, third baseman Brooks Robinson, shortstop Ozzie Smith, catcher Johnny Bench and manager Tommy Lasorda, along with former stars Steve Garvey, Fred Lynn, Dale Murphy and Bucky Dent, and former American and National League Manager of the Year Tony LaRussa.
Retired and active National Football League and National Basketball Association players also were well represented, including former Washington Redskins Sam Huff, Doug Williams, Brian Mitchell, Darrell Green, Mark Rypien and Mark Moseley, along with Mr. Manning, Tony Dorsett, Doug Flutie, Jim Plunkett, Randy White, Warren Moon, Paul Warfield, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Danny White, Ty Detmer, Michael Strahan, Oscar Robertson, Luke Walton, Chauncey Billups, Bill Laimbeer and Walt Frazier.
Some made one appearance, others made several, including Mr. White, the Hall of Fame lineman for the Dallas Cowboys, who made nine paid appearances — the most of any athlete. He was paid a total of $135,000 for events in Texas and Oklahoma, the records show.
The sports figures would often speak at events near where they had their best years as players.
Novartis also used coaches to attract doctors to their meetings, such as Phillip Fulmer, the then-football coach at the University of Tennessee, who made four $17,500 appearances for Novartis in Tennessee in 2008, including three in an eight-day stretch. Mr. Fulmer, now a college football analyst, coached Tennessee to the national championship in 1998.
Mr. Nelson said Novartis never told him it was under investigation over its marketing practices when he was hired.
“Novartis has already paid a substantial fine to begin to resolve those investigations, but they have left my firm and the athletes and the doctors with these long-term Justice Department and legislative concerns that they knowingly exposed us to,” he said.
In its response to the lawsuit, Novartis denies owing the Nelson Group any money and claimed instead that discovery will show it is “entitled to a refund of thousands if not millions of dollars” for unsubstantiated expenses. Novartis claims it reimbursed the Nelson Group for honoraria to several doctors and sports figures that were never paid, allegations Mr. Nelson denied.
The new health care reform bill includes a section that requires the manufacturers of pharmaceuticals and medical devices to publicly disclose payments they make to physicians beginning in 2013 for the year 2012.
The requirement was introduced by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Sen. Herb Kohl, Wisconsin Democrat, who estimated that the drug industry spends $19 billion annually on marketing to physicians in the form of gifts, lunches, drug samples and sponsorship of education programs.
“Rising drug prices hurt us all by undermining our private and public health systems, including Medicare and Medicaid,” said Mr. Kohl. “Even more alarming is the notion that these gifts and payments can compromise physicians’ medical judgment by putting their financial interest ahead of the welfare of their patients.”
Mr. Kohl said the more doctors interact with drug marketers, “the more likely doctors are to prescribe the expensive new drug that is being marketed to them.”
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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