Special report: Doctors report big pharma payouts for drug endorsements

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Earnings list: Top-paid doctor received more than $1 million for speaking, consulting


At least three San Bernardino County physicians have earned more than $100,000 in speaking fees from pharmaceutical companies, according to new data.

The data, compiled by investigative journalism organization ProPublica, comes from 15 drug firms' disclosures. The Affordable Care Act will require pharmaceutical and medical device firms to publicly report their payments to doctors next year.

In San Bernardino County, the physicians who collected the most payments from 2009 through 2012 include cardiologist Jun Chiong, who in 2010 collected $100,500 in a single speaking fee from drug manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline.

From 2009 through 2012, Chiong earned about $191,500 in speaking fees alone.

Other San Bernardino County doctors whose total speaking fees exceeded $100,000 were Alan Jacobson of Loma Linda and Jeffrey Unger of Catalina Research Institute in Chino.

One doctor whose fees came close to the six-figure mark was Suman Thakker, who is affiliated with Desert Valley Medical Center in Victorville.

Pharmaceutical firms' payments to doctors are legal, but the question accompanying the practice is whether drug firms' payments create a conflict of interest.

Unger, who according to ProPublica received a little more than $148,000 in speaking fees from from Eli Lilly and AstraZeneca from 2009 to 2012, acknowledged that those concerns motivated the new disclosure rules but said they are misplaced.

The speaking engagements, Unger said, are a vital part of his continuing education as a doctor and that there's nothing wrong being paid for the work those events require.

"We're not playing golf. We're not getting massages. This makes me a better doctor," he said.

Unger said he is preparing for an event in Mexico that will require him to work up to 20 hours to prepare his remarks.

"I've never had any patient ask me, `Hey, doctor, when have you gotten any money from these pharmaceutical companies?' They don't ask. They don't care as long as they're getting the best possible treatment from their doctor," Unger added.

Chiong, who is listed as a Loma Linda University faculty member, was reluctant to discuss speaking fees.

Chiong said he does not advocate for anything he does not believe in.

"From my standpoint, I'm a medical doctor. Without medication, I'm nothing," he said.

Chiong said the general public would not understand the relationship between physicians and drug companies.

"This is a very complicated thing, and even doctors don't understand," he said.

Jacobson could not be reached for comment Monday.

Desert Valley Medical Center CEO Margaret Peterson said she welcomes Thakker, who has board certification in internal medicine and rheumatology, being asked to speak at medical events.

"Our feeling is that we are very proud of the fact that Dr. Thakker is out there on the national forefront," she said.

Thakker said he speaks to general and professional audiences and discloses when he receives payments from a drug company. The medications he promotes includes Enbrel, which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

Pfizer and Amgen market Enbrel, Pfizer, Eli Lilly and GlaxoSmithKlein are the firms that have paid Thakker for speaking fees. Thakker said new medications can provide significant relief to arthritis patients, but his speaking fees don't dictate treatment.

"I prescribe all the medicines. The ones I'm promoting or otherwise," he said.


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