Back in 2003, the Legislature created the state Pharmaceutical Cost Management Council in a bold attempt to reduce prescription costs. The effort was backed by medical reformers like former Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, this newspaper's latest West Virginian of the Year.
But the agency became a bureaucratic flop, and later was abolished. Here's one reason it fizzled:
A proposed rule would have required all drug manufacturers to disclose "payola" gifts they shower on West Virginia doctors to induce them to prescribe high-priced brand-name medicines. Medical groups objected, so the council voted to hide the names of payola-receiving physicians, despite objections from Sen. Foster.
Instead, pharmaceutical firms provided only a no-names list of payments -- which was damning. For example, for 2008, the firms said they gave 15,382 inducements worth millions to Mountain State doctors. Since the state has only 5,000 physicians, they averaged more than three gifts each.
Meanwhile, NBC News revealed that U.S. drug firms shower $18 billion per year on American doctors -- averaging about $30,000 per physician. Some of the gifts are legitimate, such as free drug samples to give to low-income patients. But most are shady, almost akin to bribery, often fees for speaking or writing in support of expensive new drugs.
Since the state council hid doctor names, West Virginians couldn't learn whether their family doctors were paid extra for prescribing certain drugs. But that may change soon. Under America's new Affordable Care Act, a "sunshine" provision will mandate disclosure of physician gifts.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced a new "National Physician Payment Transparency Program," which will start collecting doctor payment data Aug. 1. Fourteen months later, the information is to be posted on a public Internet website by Sept. 30, 2014.
"You should know when your doctor has a financial relationship with the companies that manufacture or supply the medicines or medical devices you may need," said Dr. Peter Budetti of the federal agency.
When the national payola list goes public, maybe some embarrassed doctors will stop taking goodies. Regardless, West Virginians finally will be able to learn whether their own physicians get money rewards for their treatment decisions.