UNITE HERE, a multi-sector union, has launched a petition drive aimed at stopping the cozy relationship between big pharmaceutical corporations and influential doctors, who steer other doctors toward prescribing medications and medical devices produced by their benefactors.
Pro Publica reports that pharmaceutical corporations like Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and others in 2013 spent $1.4 billion in payments to doctors in the form of promotional speaking fees, consulting fees, meals, travel expenses, and other compensation.
According to the union, these payments represent a conflict of interest and are a major factor in driving up the cost of health care in the US.
“Prescription drugs, devices, and biologicals are a major factor in rising health care costs and the union is concerned doctors may be unduly influenced by contributions from Big Pharma to prescribe more expensive drugs when more affordable, generic alternatives are available,” said the union in a statement announcing its petition drive.
Members of UNITE HERE have felt the sting of higher health care costs perhaps more than others.
In some cases, they have had to forego pay increases in order to maintain their high quality health care plans.
Many UNITE HERE members and their dependents belong to health care plans operated by the union.
These plans known as multi-employer plans provide high-quality, affordable health care to workers in industries where work is often transitory like construction, transportation, and the hospitality industry.
UNITE HERE Health Care is the umbrella organization for about 20 local and regional health multi-employer plans such as the Culinary Health Fund in Las Vegas, which provides 125,000 Las Vegas hospitality workers and their dependents with access to excellent health care with no premium cost to the workers and low co-payments and deductibles.
Similar health care benefits are few and far between in the hospitality industry and non-existent among non-union hospitality workers.
But these benefits come at a price, and in recent contract negotiations Culinary Workers Local 226, the UNITE HERE local in Las Vegas, has had to accept reduced wage increases in return for sufficient employer contributions to maintain the workers’ premium-free health care plan.
The union’s health plan is facing other challenges as well. Unless changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) are made, high quality health plans like the one enjoyed by Local 226 members will have to pay an extra tax, which will further drive up the cost of the plan.
These costs could be offset if union members who belong to multi-employer health plans and qualify for ACA subsidies could get the subsidies, but the government has ruled that these workers aren’t eligible.
Another way to make these plans less expensive would be to give them the same tax breaks that the government has authorized for other self-funded health plans like those operated by GE, Caterpillar, and Intel, but multi-employer plans have been barred from receiving these tax breaks.
These cost pressures have made it imperative for UNITE HERE to find ways to reduce health care costs without imposing more cost on members, who have decent paying jobs, but like most working Americans are finding it more difficult to pay day-to-day expenses.
As a result, UNITE HERE has launched its petition campaign aimed at breaking the link between Big Pharma and the medical profession’s most influential doctors.
Some of these doctors are paid millions of dollars by Big Pharma.
Pro Publica reports that between August 2013 and December 2014 five doctors received payments from pharmaceutical companies of more than $22 million.
The highest paid doctor is Sujata Narayan, who was paid $43.8 million by four pharmaceutical companies.
Doctors like Dr. Narayan often make presentations at Continuing Medical Education (CME) classes where they tout drugs and medical devices produced by companies who pay them speaker and consulting fees.
The classes, which doctors are required to take in order to maintain their licenses, are sponsored by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education (ACCME).
UNITE HERE’s petition urges ACCME to stop allowing doctors who receive payments from pharmaceutical companies from making presentations that endorse the products of their payor.
UNITE HERE in its statement about the petition launch said that the union plans to gather petition signatures in more than 30 US cities and will be “encouraging . . . ACCME to end financial ties between Big Pharma and doctors participating in CME courses. Patients, doctors, and members of the public can sign the petition at NoMoreDrugMoney.org.”