Analysis shows frequent prescribers of opioids receive larger payments from pharma

Doctors who write the most opioid prescriptions get paid the most money from the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the drugs, analysis by CNN and researchers at Harvard University found.

Using government databases, the analysis found that 54% of doctors who wrote prescriptions to Medicare patients in 2014 and 2015 for opioids—more than 200,000 physicians—received a payment from pharmaceutical companies that make the drugs.

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The analysis showed that physicians who prescribed high levels of opioids were more likely to receive larger payments from the pharmaceutical companies.

"It smells like doctors being bribed to sell narcotics, and that's very disturbing," Andrew Kolodny, M.D., executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, told CNN.

However, the Harvard researchers said it’s not clear whether the payments encourage doctors to prescribe a pharmaceutical company’s drugs or whether companies seek out doctors who are already high prescribers and pay them for services such as speaking and consulting.

For the analysis, CNN and Harvard researchers examined Medicare prescription data and information on payments made by drug companies to physicians.

Physician prescribing has been identified as a key factor in the opioid epidemic, which is responsible for many of the 52,000 deaths attributed to drug overdoses in 2015.

Amid that epidemic, a study last summer found that 1 in 12 physicians has received payments from drugmakers that sell prescription opioid painkillers. The figures should prompt an examination of industry influences on opioid prescribing, the study authors said.

RELATED: Pharmaceutical company paid a dozen doctors with known disciplinary problems to promote its drug

It’s not the first time a CNN investigation has found issues with pharmaceutical companies and doctors. An investigation in December found 12 of the 500 doctors paid by a pharmaceutical company to promote its drug were disciplined by state medical boards.

It’s also not the first time that research has raised concerns about payments to doctors from pharmaceutical companies. A recent study found that 65% of patients in the United States have visited a doctor in the past year who received payments or gifts from pharmaceutical or medical device companies, but most have no idea about it.

Other research shows many oncologists who take payments from drug companies never disclose their conflicts of interest when they mention the medicine on Twitter.