Feds cracking down on doctor kickbacks

It takes two to kickback. So federal officials aiming to stop the practice--and tired of knocking at Big Pharma's door--are approaching the problem from the opposite end. Yep, they're now targeting doctors.

The New York Times reports that prosecutors have historically avoided putting physicians in the hot seat, because they figured juries would sympathize with them (and we all know that public opinion of pharma leaves a bit to be desired). Now, though, the feds are plotting civil and criminal charges against surgeons who allegedly demanded kickbacks from device makers. "The strategy of looking at the companies alone was not completely successful in terms of our objective to deter health care fraud," U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan told the paper. "So it's fair to say that the government is looking at evidence of criminal wrongdoing even by doctors."

And this is just part of a toughened-up attempt to prevent undue industry influence on doctors. As the NYT points out, the feds have already boosted fines that have been part of plea agreements in mismarketing cases. Eli Lilly said it would pay $1.4 billion to settle Zyprexa marketing claims; Pfizer set aside $2.3 billion for an expected fine for Bextra marketing irregularities. And officials have been forcing drug and device makers to publicize all their payments to doctors who serve as consultants or speakers, in hopes of making criminal contact easier to track down--and to discourage payments from the get-go.

Some doctors already are feeling the heat from that public disclosure. One doctor who had served on prestigious government panels saw invitations for service stop after records revealed that he had earned almost $800,000 from drug companies. Now that "everyone" will know who's getting money from whom, all sides might start obeying the law. Or so prosecutors hope.

- read the NYT article