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The Boston Globe

Health & wellness

Ban is lifted on free meals for Massachusetts doctors

State says drug makers can offer

Drug and medical device makers once again can treat Massachusetts doctors to meals and drinks in restaurants, ­under new regulations that weaken the state’s strict ban on gifts to health care providers.

The change drew strong criticism from the state’s major consumer advocacy group, but was applauded by the pharmaceutical industry’s national trade organization.

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The state Public Health Council approved the emergency regulations Wednesday. In July, Governor Deval Patrick signed a state budget that scaled back restrictions imposed in 2008 and allowed companies to pay for modest meals and refreshments for doctors as part of informational sessions about their products. Patrick and the Legislature left it up to public health officials to define modest.

Health officials did not ­establish a dollar limit. Instead, they decided that meals must be modest by local standards and “similar to what a provider may pay’’ for a meal when eating out, said Iyah Romm, director of policy, health planning, and strategic development for the Department of Public Health.

Romm said that is similar to rules adopted by the American Medical Association, the drug industry trade group PhRMA, and the Advanced Medical Technology Association.

Health Care for All, a consumer group based in Boston, called it a significant change that will increase health care costs, because money that companies spend on meals and ­alcohol gets rolled into the price of pharmaceutical products and devices. Food and drink is also used to attract physicians to sessions where companies promote expensive brand-name drugs, the group said. “There are no holds barred on wining and dining again,” said the group’s executive director, Amy Whitcomb Slemmer. “Allowing these meals and inter­actions gets in the way of the doctor-patient relationship and affects prescribing behavior.’’

She said the organization would work to reverse the change. Health officials plan to hold a public hearing on Oct. 19 and will take written comments before issuing final regulations.

One Public Health Council member, Dr. Alan Woodward, said he wants the final rules to make clear that lunch and dinner sessions have “valid education content’’ and “that this not be an open door for marketing.”

Patrick has maintained that the more permissive regulations are a “narrow change” that would facilitate efforts by companies to educate health care providers about new drugs and medical devices.

Marjorie Powell, senior ­assistant general counsel for PhRMA, said the Massachusetts law was placing unnecessary restrictions on the industry as it tries to work with health care providers.

“While physicians have a lot of sources of information, one important source is companies who are researching and bringing to market new medicines. They are tracking new uses and adverse events. To be able to tell doctors about that and other prescribers is important.’’

But Dr. Elizabeth Wiley, president of the American Medical Student Association, said the health department defined “‘modest meals’’ so vaguely that the state’s gift ban is now effectively unenforceable.

Kay Lazar of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Liz ­Kowalczyk can be reached at kowalczyk@globe.com.

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