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Roll-back sought on meal ban for doctors

Restaurants say law is hurting their business

By Chelsea Conaboy
Globe Staff / June 16, 2011

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With seating for 30 in a private dining room wired with projection equipment, Dalya’s Restaurant at Bedford Farms was well equipped to host dinners put on by pharmaceutical companies for doctors they hoped would use their products.

Owner Frans von Berkhout said doctors liked to come to his restaurant in Bedford because they knew they were in for a good meal. But in 2008, when the Legislature made such gatherings illegal as part of a broader effort to limit the relationship between physicians and marketers, Dalya’s lost about 10 percent of its business, he said.

He and other restaurant representatives appealed yesterday to a panel of lawmakers to roll back the law and allow the doctor dinners to go on, in the name of supporting small businesses.

Consumer advocates said the change would be a dangerous undoing of a law aimed at protecting patients and curbing prescription drugs costs, even as the national trend is toward stricter controls.

Some members of the Joint Committee on Community Development and Small Business said the negative impact on restaurants seemed like an unintended consequence of the 2008 law, generally referred to as the pharmaceutical gift ban, because it prohibits gifts of more than $50 to doctors.

“It’s creating the burden on the small businessman,’’ said Representative James J. Lyons, a Republican from Andover.

But Senator Mark C. Montigny, a Democrat from New Bedford and an author of the original gift ban, said there was nothing unintended about the law.

“The corruption of the sacred doctor-patient relationship by the pharmaceutical industry by schmoozing at fancy restaurants is exactly the consequence that the law was intended to prevent,’’ he said.

Such dinners contribute to the “illegitimate relationship’’ between physicians and industry, he said. Advocates say such connections to marketers can make doctors feel obliged to prescribe high-cost brand name drugs, even when cheaper options may be more appropriate.

Such gifts aren’t free, said Amy Whitcomb Slemmer, executive director of the consumer group Health Care For All. “They come with strings attached.’’

The bill before the committee is one of two efforts to roll back the gift ban. In April, the House added a measure to its budget proposal, now being debated in conference committee, that would repeal the law altogether.

Senator Anthony Petruccelli, a Democrat from East Boston, does not support repeal, but he sponsored the restaurant bill. Under the law today, drug salespeople can bring meals to doctors in their offices or in a hospital setting as long as the cost of the meal does not exceed $50 and if the hospital’s internal policy allows it. He said he does not see a difference between providing a meal in that setting or in a dining room where the restaurant owner can benefit.

Alison Hwong, a Harvard Medical School student, urged lawmakers to keep the law intact so that she and her colleagues do not have to worry as much about being influenced by drug and device makers.

“I see this law as protecting myself,’’ she said.

Advocates aid they are skeptical of the idea that the gift ban has hurt the economy. They point to talks of expanding the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center and to Department of Revenue numbers that show restaurant revenues are growing.

Representative Lori A. Ehrlich, a Democrat from Marblehead who sits on the committee, said assertions that the restaurant industry has been broadly harmed are “tenuous at best.’’

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com.

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