Thursday, September 3, 2009

Roundhouse Roundup: Pfizer Press Conference Pfizzles

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 3, 2009

It was a classic case of bad timing.

Last week there was a news release announcing that U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján would be at the state Capitol to help unveil a new publication called the New Mexico Health Guide: Resources for the Uninsured. This is a “comprehensive listing of health care resources that are available to help uninsured and underinsured residents of New Mexico meet their health care needs, providing contact information and health tips in an easy-to-use and easy-to-read format.”

Sounds innocuous enough. Might even help some people. The guide was paid for by Pfizer Helpful Answers, a nonprofit wing of the very profitable Pfizer pharmaceutical company, and the Colorado chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Nurses.

The news conference was scheduled for today. But by Wednesday night, Luján canceled his appearance due to “the recent events regarding the parent company of the foundation” that helped pay for the guide. Later, organizers announced the entire dog-and-pony show had been cancelled.

The “recent events” actually occurred earlier in the day when Pfizer subsidiary Pharmacia & Upjohn Inc. pleaded guilty to a felony in a federal fraudulent marketing case and the two companies agreed to pay the largest criminal fine in American history.

In addition to the $1.2 billion criminal fine, Pfizer also agreed to pay $1 billion in civil penalties and a $100 million criminal forfeiture. The case against Pfizer involved four prescription drugs, including a painkiller Bextra. Prosecutors said the company promoted the drugs as treatments for conditions different from the ones for which they’d been approved.

“Authorities called Pfizer a repeat offender, noting it is the company’s fourth such settlement of government charges in the last decade,” an Associated Press report said. “As part of its illegal marketing, Pfizer invited doctors to consultant meetings at resort locations, paying their expenses and providing perks, prosecutors said.” These perks, according to the wire service, included “free golf, massages, and resort junkets.”
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan
Obviously, it’s not the kind of company that a young congressman trying to build a reputation as a health care reformer needs to be keeping. Spokesman Mark Nicastre said Wednesday that Luján finds the Pfizer fraud case “clearly disturbing” and that it “shows the need for greater oversight.” But, he said, the health guide is “a useful tool for the uninsured.”

Instead of the news conference, Luján will meet with constituents between 9 and 10 a.m. at his office, 811 St. Michael’s Drive. Suite 104. For an appointment, call 984-8950

Pfizer in New Mexico: There’s no record of any “free golf, massages, and resort junkets” from Pfizer to New Mexico politicians. But the company has given the state a lot more than a health guide.

According to the Institute of Money in State Government, the company, its executives and one of its lobbyists have contributed nearly $100,000 to state political campaigns since 2002. Gov. Bill Richardson got more than $18,000 of that for his two gubernatorial races. A New Mexico Common Cause study last year said Pfizer made more campaign contributions in the state than any other pharmaceutical company in the past 10 years.

Richardson wrote the “Welcome Page” for the health guide, available on the KSFR news site (HERE). In fairness, it’s a pretty generic message, saying the guide is handy and health care is one of his biggest priorities. He doesn’t mention Pfizer in the message.

As for Luján, he hasn’t received any direct contributions from Pfizer.

However, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, he’s received $5,600 from lobbyist Scott Scanland — a longtime New Mexico lobbyist who has more than 20 other clients besides the pharmaceutical giant.

Scanland also gave $6,900 to Richardson’s presidential bid in 2007 and 2008. However, Richardson refunded $2,300 of that after he dropped out of the race.

Blog Bonus:

Here's a copy of a Pfizer-sponsored health guide from Arizona, which, according to Lujan's office, is simialr to the one recently published for New Mexico.