Is that drug company speaking fee legit? HHS watchdog raises red flag over arrangements with docs

There are "inherent risks" of fraud and kickbacks when drug and device companies pay doctors to speak, a federal watchdog said in a special fraud alert Monday (PDF). 

In the last three years, drug and device companies spent a collective $2 billion for speaker-related services, says the report from the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General (OIG).

When a drug company pays a physician or other healthcare provider to speak to other providers at a company-sponsored event—either through an honorarium or by remunerating with free meals—it can violate the anti-kickback statute, officials said in a statement.

Specifically, the anti-kickback statute makes it against the law to receive or offer payment to induce or reward referrals for items or services reimbursable by a federal healthcare program, officials said.

RELATED: Study: Pharma payments to docs led to nearly 4% boost in prescription spending

The OIG and the Department of Justice have investigated and resolved numerous such cases, officials said, such as when companies selected high-prescribing providers to be speakers and "rewarded them with lucrative speaker deals" up into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In other cases, they said, they discovered companies required physicians who were speakers to write a minimum number of prescriptions in order to receive the speaker honoraria. Still other cases held speaker programs at entertainment venues or during recreational events not conducive to an educational presentation such as wineries, sports stadiums and adult entertainment venues.

Finally, they said, in other examples companies held programs at high-end restaurants where expensive meals and alcohol were served, while others invited an audience that included providers' friends, significant others or family members who did not have a legitimate business reason to attend the program.

"Such cases strongly suggest that one purpose of the remuneration to the HCP speaker and attendees is to induce or reward referrals," the OIG said in the statement.

Drug company industry groups say having providers participate in company-sponsored speaker programs allows them to "educate and inform other health care professionals about the benefits, risks, and appropriate uses of company medicines.”

However, the report said: "OIG is skeptical about the educational value of such programs."

The OIG said it was releasing the statement amid the global pandemic because even as COVID-19 has resulted in a drop in in-person speaking engagements, the risks could return and become more pronounced if companies resume in-person speaker programs or increase speaker program-related payments to doctors.