Pfizer Pays to Send Dozens of Israeli Doctors on Junket Abroad, With State's Approval

Pfizer paid for 58 cardiologists and internists to travel to conference on its blood-thinning drug, with Health Ministry's blessing.

FILE PHOTO: A blister pack containing Neurontin anti-epileptic capsules, produced by Pfizer Inc., sits on a pharmacy counter in this arranged photograph in London, U.K., on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016.
FILE PHOTO: A blister pack containing Neurontin anti-epileptic capsules, produced by Pfizer Inc., sits on a pharmacy counter in this arranged photograph in London, U.K., on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016. Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Nearly 60 Israeli physicians were flown to a conference in Spain last week, at the expense of pharmaceutical company Pfizer, receiving rare Health Ministry approval for the junket.

The trip has provoked an uproar in Israel’s medical community, raising questions about the meaning and the consistency of ministry oversight of doctors’ professional trips abroad.

Pfizer paid for 58 cardiologists and internists to travel to and attend a conference on its blood-thinning drug Eliquis. The ministry issued an “exceptional permit” for the trip, despite recently announcing that it would bar physicians from accepting foreign travel paid by a single company.

Following its new policy, in the past several weeks the ministry rejected trips proposed by other drug companies. It also informed two drug makers that had planned to fly Israeli doctors abroad for a conference that it was withdrawing its approval, shortly before the trip. The ministry said it canceled the trip due to concerns that they were for marketing purposes.

The problem is with “stand-alone” conferences, organized and funded by a specific company, usually for the launch of a new treatment. The ministry recently published a directive forbidding companies from sending Israeli doctors to these conferences at the companies’ expense.

One of the companies informed that its plans were being canceled was Boehringer Ingelheim, whose Pradaxa competes with Eliquis.

In response to questions, sources in the Finance Ministry told TheMarker that Pfizer had submitted materials addressing the ministry’s concerns, but stated that the approval given to Pfizer was an “exception” that would not be repeated.

The ministry said it received a request from Pfizer on January 18, saying it wanted to bring doctors to a scientific conference on “raising awareness and knowledge of atrial fibrillation diseases, with an emphasis on preventing strokes, and care and prevention of pulmonary embolisms and deep vein thrombosis in keeping with the prescriptions approved in Israel for preventing blood clots.” The ministry said that on February 21 it granted special approval based on the presenters at the conference.

The ministry added that it told the company it would not grant “approval for ‘scientific,’ ‘marketing’ and ‘professional’ conferences financed by a single company in the future.

It noted that since conferences organized by a group of companies are less likely to influence doctors’ prescribing decisions, they are still permitted.

In a response, Pfizer said “The conference dealt with innovations in preventing strokes among patients with atrial fibrillation and thrombosis, and statistics on all medications on the market were presented, as were recommended treatments.” It added that 1,700 doctors from all over Europe took part, and that the conference was funded by a grant unconnected to Pfizer and BMS, an American company that distributes Eliquis.

The company added, “It was clear to us that the conference was not marketing related, and we requested the Health Ministry’s approval in any case. ... Only after they were convinced that it was a scientific conference and not a marketing conference did we receive approval.”