Merck will disclose all sorts of payments to doctors, medical groups

Merck & Co. Inc. becomes the latest pharmaceutical company to agree to disclose how much money it gives to health-related institutions.

But it will go one step further: Merck will specify payments it makes to doctors.

It announced the moves one day after Eli Lilly & Co. became the first drug maker to agree to spell out how much it pays doctors for speeches and advisory services. Lilly will disclose any payment more than $500.

The drug industry has come under pressure from Congress to become more transparent over its financial support for continuing medical education and professional associations. The reason? The worry that by paying to support educational programs that discuss new drugs, companies have a powerful platform to prompt doctors to prescribe them.

GlaxoSmithKline PLC last month said it would begin publishing its educational and charitable grants on a quarterly basis, starting in February.

Merck said it will publish grants made by its Global Human Health division for “professional education initiatives” to patient organizations, medical professional societies and other groups, starting in October.

During 2009, Merck will expand the disclosure to encompass other grants made to medical, scientific and patient organizations.

In addition, Merck says during 2009 it will begin revealing how much it pays physicians who speak on behalf of the company or its products. So far, Eli Lilly is the only other drug maker to pledge to do that.

Make no mistake, Merck and other drug makers may be voluntarily doing this, but they’re being pushed, primarily by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R., Iowa). There is pending legislation, called the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, to force disclosure of the industry’s financial ties to doctors.

Sponsored by Grassley, it would require disclosure of payments of more than $25 and levy penalties of up to $100,000 for failure to do so.