Pharma junkets for U.K. docs trigger tough new Sunshine rules, penalties

U.K. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt

England may have been behind the U.S. in shining the light on financial ties between pharma and physicians, but that's changing. Not only will National Health Service doctors be required to declare all gifts they receive from drugmakers. They'll also face losing their jobs--or even jail--if pharma payments influence their work.

All NHS hospitals and GP groups will have to list every gift and payment from pharma companies to health service staff, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt says. The penalty for falling short of conflicts of interest rules? Those pharma gifts--such as the free trips highlighted in a recent Telegraph story--could be prosecuted under the Bribery Act if they influence any decision-making.

Last month, the newspaper ran a story about financial ties between drugmakers and senior NHS staff who help set drug-use policies. Some were hired as paid consultants by drugmakers looking to see the NHS switch to their treatments, the Telegraph says. Some NHS managers charged £15,000 to organize "advisory board" meetings for pharma companies, the newspaper reports, with the meetings themselves often taking place in luxury hotels in foreign destinations.

In a follow-up article in that newspaper, Hunt promised a crackdown on such practices, saying it's "shocking" that pharma sales reps are targeting the NHS to sway purchasing decisions.

The newspaper's investigation "suggested that some NHS staff and professionals making these decisions may have been influenced by extravagant hospitality," Hunt said. "It's hard not to conclude that some sales reps have ben ripping the NHS off, and diverting taxpayers' money away from patient care."

Hunt pointed out that some collaborations between the NHS and drugmakers are genuinely beneficial--"sensible" was his word--and that only a small number of NHS staffers were accused of wrongdoing. "[T]he overwhelming majority would be horrified" at the suggestion that drugs would be purchased because of industry influence, Hunt said. In any case, the government "must not tolerate abuse," he said.

As the Telegraph notes, two laws cover penalties for improper financial relationships between health officials and pharma companies. The Human Medical Regulations 2012 bans gifts in connection with the promotion of medicines to anyone qualified to supply or prescribe medicines. Convictions under these laws can result in a two year jail term. Acts of bribery or fraud are covered by the Bribery Act 2010 and the Fraud Act 2006. Convictions under the Bribery Act can lead to up to 10 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine.

- read the Telegraph story

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