Drug companies would no longer be able to mine pharmacy records to track which doctors are prescribing their medications, under a proposal unveiled Thursday by two Senate Democrats.
The amendment to the Senate health care bill would effectively ban pharmaceutical data mining, the drug company practice of buying prescription records to target sales pitches to doctors.
Sens. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin and Dick Durbin of Illinois say the measure will combat "harassing sales practices" and "restrain undue influence" of pharmaceutical salespersons.
Companies like IMS Health Inc. and Verispan LLC have built multimillion-dollar businesses around gathering prescription data and selling the information to pharmaceutical companies. Pfizer Inc., Merck & Co. Inc. and others use the data to identify doctors who are prescribing their drugs, as well as treatments from other companies. When salespeople visit a doctor's office they tailor their presentation to the doctor's individual prescribing habits.
Still, the amendment from Kohl and Durbin faces an uphill climb to become law. The Senate has been debating the health care bill since the beginning of last week and is expected to resume Monday. The House of Representatives already passed its version of the bill, which opted to study the issue of data mining, not limit it.
A spokesman for Norwalk, Conn.-based IMS said that interfering with data mining "has the potential to harm patients," since the information is used by federal agencies to track patient safety.
However, the Senate amendment only bars the sale of prescribing records "for marketing purposes."
Consumer advocates say the Senate effort could raise the profile of data mining in Congress and among state lawmakers.
New Hampshire and Vermont already passed state restrictions on data mining, despite vigorous legal challenges by IMS Health, Verispan and others. A similar law in Maine was struck down by a district court, but has been appealed by the state's attorney general.
"I think both at both federal and state levels you'll see continued momentum because it's clear the issue of drug marketing influence hasn't been addressed yet," said Marcia Hams, director of prescription access at Community Catalyst, a nonprofit health care advocate.
Opponents of data mining say tightening state budgets have highlighted the role pharmaceutical marketers play in driving up health care costs.
"The more pressure there is on Medicaid budgets and private insurance premiums, the more state legislators are realizing that industry marketing promotes expensive drugs over less expensive ones," Hams said.
Data mining executives say that without their products drug companies would have to hire even larger sales forces, because they wouldn't be able to target their efforts.