Companies sue state over prescription drug law
By DANIEL BARLOW Vermont Press Bureau | August 30,2007
MONTPELIER — Three data-collection companies sued the state of Vermont Wednesday over a provision in the new prescription drug law that would conceal from public view what drugs doctors are prescribing to their patients.
The 34-page complaint filed in Vermont's U.S. District Court alleges that the law, which was passed by the Legislature this year and takes effect in 2008, is unconstitutional and could result in higher prescription drug prices.
Two of the companies that jointly filed the lawsuit Wednesday sued the state of New Hampshire last year over a similar law, resulting in a District Court judge blocking its implementation over free speech concerns.
"Without prescriber-identifiable data, the health care community will lose a powerful tool to help monitor the safety of new medications and ensure that patients taking them are not harmed," the lawsuit states. "Without it, medical researchers will be unable to conduct studies that can improve public health."
The three companies — IMS Health, Wolters Kluwer Health and Verispan Communications — are so-called data-mining companies that catalog what prescription drugs doctors are prescribing. They work for a variety of organizations, governments and businesses, although the pharmaceutical industry is one of their top customers.
Supporters of Vermont's new law say blocking access to that information would reduce the amount of marketing done by health care industry companies toward doctors, such as recommending new brand name medicines based on their prior prescription history.
"I think it is another important step in health care reform," said Rep. Harry Chen, D-Mendon, an emergency room doctor and strong supporter of the bill, soon after Gov. James Douglas signed it into law in June. "It will save money and it will improve quality."
The Vermont Department of Health forwarded questions regarding the lawsuit to Attorney General William Sorrell, who would be defending the law in court. But Sorrell is on vacation until through Labor Day and unavailable for comment.
Assistant Attorney General Wendy Morgan said Wednesday that she had not yet seen the court documents and could not comment on the case.
"Even if I had seen it, our first response would probably come in the form of a court filing or motion," she said.
Randy Frankel, vice-president of external affairs for IMS Health, defended the work conducted by IMS and other data-collecting companies, which he said help reduce the cost of health care and give doctors and patients more information and options in their decisions.
"The attempt by the Vermont Legislature to reduce health care costs is honorable," Frankel said in a phone interview Wednesday. "Unfortunately, they also moved to stop the publication of vital data that can be used to reduce health care costs."
Dr. Paul Harrington, president of the Vermont Medical Society, an advocacy organization for doctors in the state, disagreed.
"That flies in the face of common sense," Harrington said of the suggestion that disclosing this information leads to lower costs. "The pharmaceuticals pay these companies millions of dollars to collect this information and it is aimed at increasing their profit, not reducing prices."
The prescription drug law, which also includes provisions aimed at increasing the use of less expensive, generic drugs, was the final bill to be signed into law by Gov. James Douglas following the end of the legislative session this year.
Spokesperson Jason Gibbs said Wednesday that the governor supported large portions of the bill because it would work to lower health care prices in Vermont. But he was concerned about the provision that concealed the drug information, he added, although he stopped short of suggesting it would be unconstitutional.
"Ultimately, it seems that only a federal court can decide whether or nor the Legislature overstepped its boundaries in this case," Gibbs said.
The three data-collective companies also filed a similar suit Wednesday against the state of Maine, which passed a similar bill during its legislative session this year.
Contact Daniel Barlow at Daniel.Barlow@rutlandherald.com.