I-Team: Nevada Doctors Accept Millions from Drug Companies - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Nevada Doctors Accept Millions from Drug Companies

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Touro University of Nevada Touro University of Nevada
Dr. Steven Folkerth's medical office. Dr. Steven Folkerth's medical office.

LAS VEGAS -- One part of the controversial Affordable Care Act that has received very little attention is a requirement that drug firms and medical supply companies must reveal all payments they make to doctors.

Last year, drug companies dished out nearly $800 million to doctors, paying for them to give speeches or for expensive meals, entertainment, first class travel, and for research. Critics allege it's a form of bribery, which is why transparency is needed.

Drug Companies Court Doctors with Gifts, Vacations

It's not known how much they've been paying to doctors because the only data made public is for about 15 of the 70 drug companies in the country, but the dollar figures are enormous. Critics say the under the table payments drive up the cost of medicine for everyone and put lives at risk.

The I-Team was able to crunch some numbers compiled by Pro Publica and came up with the names of Las Vegas doctors who've been on the receiving end of this generosity.

Search for Your Doctor on Pro Publica

An unassuming building is the address listed for Touru University professor Dr. Upinder Singh. Records show he's accepted $226,000 from drug companies in the last three years, most of it for delivering speeches.

Top 10 Nevada Doctors who Received Money from Drug Companies

The most prolific medical speaker in Nevada is Dr. Firhaad Ismail, who collected nearly $460,000 from drug companies for speaking, consulting and traveling. He had one of the highest figures in the nation for those categories. Non-profit psychiatrist Dr. John Anooshian spoke enough times to rake in $166,000 from drug companies. Famed cancer researcher Nicholas Vogelzang accepted gifts, meals, travel and speaking fees to the tune of $209,000. Overall, Nevada doctors took more than $12 million from drug and device companies over the last three years, according to records compiled by Pro Publica.

READ: Dr. Nicholas Vogelzang statement on the gifts and fees he has received

For some doctors, the amounts were substantial. Pro Publica believes patients deserve to know.

"If your doctor is being paid to speak or consult on behalf of a pharmaceutical company, it is important for you as a patient to know that because he might be choosing a drug made by a company that is more expensive, or that has side effects. It might not even be the best drug for you," said Tracy Weber with Pro Publica.

Most Nevada doctors accept very little from big pharma, but studies show even small gifts can affect how doctors prescribe drugs.

"Even small amounts, even tchotchkes or a meal, can have an impact on how a doctor perceives a company and how favorably they look toward a company's products studies show there is often a direct relationship between the amount of money paid to doctors and the prescriptions they write, even if the medications are wrong for the patient," Weber said.

Have you had an experience that made you question your doctor's motive? Please respond to the story on the 8 News NOW Facebook page.

One reason Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay a $2 billion fine is that its sales force had convinced doctors to prescribe inappropriate medicines that increased the risks of stroke and death in elderly patients. At a Glaxo-Smith gathering in Las Vegas a few years ago, a company executive pumped up the sales force to sell medicine for unapproved uses by asking them who wanted to be a millionaire?

When a biomedical outfit named Merin asked the Nevada Tax Commission to declare it a non-profit a few years ago, the request was denied because the commission said the entire operation was for the benefit of medical device companies who foot the bill to bring doctors on trips to Las Vegas.

Health journalist Bill Sardi markets a natural supplement that has reversed blindness in a small number of patients. He thinks eye doctors won't give it a try because the alternative treatment -- eye injections -- can be billed for $2,000 a pop. There are so many ways companies can influence doctors, Sardi said.

"I was in a doctor's office every day where there was a drug rep, and lunch every day from a different drug representative. It's not just pens and pencils and scratch pads. They have just bought the office."

"When I started practicing medicine, there were only males that were drug reps. Then all of a sudden, there seemed to be drug reps that were very attractive women," said Dr. Steven Folkerth, a Las Vegas physician.

He knows drug companies try to influence doctors like himself. He's accepted $848,000, but mostly for research projects. While there may be doctors who take bribes and call it research, Folkerth has carried out more than 200 cutting-edge medical investigations.

"We've done vaccine studies on avian or bird flu. We've done studies on small pox, dengue fever, pneumonia, a shingles vaccine. We have been a part of studies developing bioterrorism vaccines, anthrax."

His work has produced verifiable results. He says arm twisting by drug companies has dropped in recent years because the companies know transparency is coming, which he thinks is a positive thing.

George Knapp: "You were paid $850,000. You're not putting that money in the bank?

Dr. Steven Folkerth: "I wish that were true."

"There is a big difference between a cancer researcher being paid $500,000 to run a very complicated drug trial versus being paid $500K a year to speak on behalf of the drug company. There is a huge difference. The sunshine doesn't stop anything from happening. It just casts light on it," said Dr. Leana Wen of George Washington University.

She started a transparency movement that is gaining momentum, one in which doctors voluntarily tell their patients if they are taking any money from anyone. Next year, when the new law kicks in, the I-Team will all be able to find out whether local doctors accept anything worth more than $10. Until then, the I-Team has put together a searchable database so you can look for the names of your doctors.

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