Hotel workers lobby to stop Big Pharma funding for CME

Big Pharma's funding of CME classes has drawn its fair share of controversy, with some arguing that industry backing could unfairly sway educational content--and in turn, doctors' prescribing decisions. Now, an unusual voice has joined the chorus: Hotel workers are campaigning to end the practice.

Unite Here, a union that represents about 270,000 hotel workers, kicked off a program to stop pharma's funding of CME courses. The group is collecting petition signatures in more than 30 cities across the U.S. and gathering support via its website, "No More Drug Money," to pressure the Accrediting Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME) to change the status quo.

The way Unite Here sees it, payments from Big Pharma to docs who take CME classes have spiraled out of control. In 2011, the industry spent $736 million on the courses and in 2013, CME activities were a "major beneficiary" of pharma gifts, cash or other compensation, Unite Here said in a statement. Especially given the rising costs of drugs, such payments are unacceptable, the group added.

"Unite Here's 'No More Drug Money' effort is specifically focused on CME courses--both individual doctors taking drug money surrounding those courses, and other avenues that Big Pharma funnels money into those courses," spokeswoman Bethany Khan told FiercePharmaMarketing in an email. "While it may very well be true that eliminating all pharma gifts to doctors is a worthy goal, we felt that it was important to start with CME courses … because CME courses are required in order for most doctors to keep their licenses."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ACCME is standing by its practices. The group claims that only 11% of CME events receive funding from Big Pharma and that compensation is "tightly controlled" by organization and industry rules.

"There is no evidence that commercial support creates commercial bias in accredited CME, results in inappropriate prescribing, or leads to increased healthcare costs," the ACCME said in a statement. "In fact, accredited CME supports public health initiatives to improve quality and safety."

Still, Unite Here's campaign signals more pushback as new laws shed light on the industry's payments to docs. Last year, the government started requiring pharma companies to record payments to physicians and report back to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services under the Sunshine Act. An Open Payments database created through the act started keeping tabs on the exchanges, and publicized results have raised a few more than a few eyebrows.

According to the latest Sunshine Act numbers, drug and device companies handed over nearly $6.5 billion to doctors and teaching hospitals last year, with Roche ($RHHBY), Novartis ($NVS), Pfizer ($PFE) and GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) shelling out the most money. Roche, for example, paid out about $373 million, while fellow industry heavyweight Novartis totaled more than $300 million in payments.

- read Unite Here's statement
- here's the ACCME's statement
- check out the blog post