Health officials scale back ban on drug, device companies buying doctors’ meals

Drug and medical device makers once again can treat Massachusetts doctors to meals and drinks in restaurants, under new regulations that weaken the state’s strict ban on gifts to health care providers.

The change drew strong criticism from the state’s major consumer advocacy group, but was applauded by the pharmaceutical industry’s national trade organization.

The state Public Health Council approved the emergency regulations Wednesday. Governor Deval Patrickin July signed a state budget that scaled back the restrictions imposed in 2008, and allowed companies to pay for “modest” meals and refreshments for doctors as part of informational sessions about their products. Patrick and the legislature left it up to public health officials to define “modest.”

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Health officials did not establish a dollar limit. Instead, they decided that meals must be modest by local standards and “similar to what a provider may pay’’ for a meal when eating out, said Iyah Romm, director of policy, health planning and strategic development for the Department of Public Health.

Romm said the standard is similar to those adopted by the American Medical Association, the drug industry trade group PhRMA, and the Advanced Medical Technology Association.

Health Care for All, a Boston-based consumer group, called it a significant change that will increase health care costs, because money companies spend on meals and alcohol gets rolled into the price of pharmaceutical products and devices. Food and drink also is used to attract physicians to sessions where companies promote expensive brand-name drugs, the group said.

“This is a very big deal,’’ said Executive Director Amy Whitcomb Slemmer. “There are no holds barred on wining and dining again. Allowing these meals and interactions gets in the way of the doctor-patient relationship and effects prescribing behavior.’’

She said the organization would work to reverse the change. Health officials plan to hold a public hearing on Oct. 19 and will take written comments before issuing final regulations.

Council member Dr. Alan Woodward said he wants the final rules to make clear that lunch and dinner sessions have “valid education content’’ and “that this not be an open door for marketing.”

Patrick has maintained that the more permissive regulations are a “narrow change” that would facilitate efforts by companies to educate health care providers about new pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

Marjorie Powell, senior assistant general counsel for PhRMA, said the Massachusetts law was placing unnecessary restrictions on the industry as it tries to work with health care providers.

“While physicians have a lot of sources of information, one important source is companies who are researching and bringing to market new medicines. They are tracking new uses and adverse events. To be able to tell doctors about that and other prescribers is really important.’’

In its previous form, the law prohibited company employees from taking doctors to lunch as part of a hiring process, and from inviting a group of doctors to dinner to help design a new clinical trial, she said.

Powell said the organization spoke to public health department employees who were working on the regulations. “We thought local standards was an important piece of this. A modest meal on Beacon Hill would be different than a modest meal in Athol.’’

But Dr. Elizabeth Wiley, president of the American Medical Student Association, said the health department defined ‘modest meals’ so vaguely that the state’s gift ban is effectively unenforceable.

“As a leader in health care and medicine, it is disappointing that Massachusetts has given into the pressure from the pharmaceutical and medical device industries,’’ she said in a written statement. “This is a huge step backward in our effort to overhaul the health care system.”