Doctors Reap Millions for Anemia Drugs
By ALEX BERENSON and ANDREW POLLACK
Two of the world’s largest drug companies are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to doctors every year in return for giving their patients anemia medicines, which regulators now say may be unsafe at commonly used doses.
The payments are legal, but very few people outside of the doctors who receive them are aware of their size. Critics, including prominent cancer and kidney doctors, say the payments give physicians an incentive to prescribe the medicines at levels that might increase patients’ risks of heart attacks or strokes.
Industry analysts estimate that such payments — to cancer doctors and the other big users of the drugs, kidney dialysis centers — total hundreds of millions of dollars a year and are an important source of profit for doctors and the centers. The payments have risen over the last several years, as the makers of the drugs, Amgen and Johnson & Johnson, compete for market share and try to expand the overall business.
Neither Amgen nor Johnson & Johnson has disclosed the total amount of the payments. But documents given to The New York Times show that at just one practice in the Pacific Northwest, a group of six cancer doctors received $2.7 million from Amgen for prescribing $9 million worth of its drugs last year.
Yesterday, the Food and Drug Administration added to concerns about the drugs, releasing a report that suggested that their use might need to be curtailed in cancer patients. The report, prepared by F.D.A. staff scientists, said no evidence indicated that the medicines either improved quality of life in patients or extended their survival, while several studies suggested that the drugs can shorten patients’ lives when used at high doses. Yesterday’s report followed the F.D.A.’s decision in March to strengthen warnings on the drugs’ labels.
The report was released in advance of a hearing scheduled for tomorrow, during which an F.D.A. advisory panel will consider whether the drugs are overused.
The medicines — Aranesp and Epogen, from Amgen; and Procrit, from Johnson & Johnson — are among the world’s top-selling drugs, with combined sales of $10 billion last year. In this country, they represent the single biggest drug expense for Medicare and are given to about a million patients each year to treat anemia caused by kidney disease or cancer chemotherapy.
Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, the deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, said that both patients and doctors would benefit from fuller disclosure about the payments and the profits that doctors can make from them. “I suspect that Medicare is going to take a very careful look at what is going on here .. full text