Olivia Hernandez always trusted the doctors who scribbled out prescription after prescription for the heavy-duty psychiatric drugs that clouded her teenage years in foster care.
Now, she feels “betrayed.”
Three of her former doctors are among a chosen group of California foster care prescribers who received gifts and payments for meals, travel, speaking and industry-sponsored research from the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies.
A three-part investigation by the San Jose Mercury News has found that drugmakers, anxious to expand the market for some of their most profitable products, spent more than $14 million from 2010 to 2013 to woo the California doctors who treat this captive and fragile audience of patients at taxpayers’ expense.
Drugmakers distribute their cash to all manner of doctors, but the investigation found that they paid the state’s foster care prescribers on average more than double what they gave to the typical California physician.
The connection raises concerns that Hernandez and many other unsuspecting youth have been caught in the middle of a big-money alliance that could be helping to drive the rampant use of psychiatric medications in the state’s foster care system.
“It sucks that the people marketed it that way, but that’s not that shocking. I’m more mad at the doctors for just going along with it,” said Hernandez, 22, who was prescribed as many as four of the drugs at a time as a foster youth in Southern California.
Overall, drugmakers reported payments to 908 doctors — well over half of those who prescribed psych medications to the state’s foster children, according to this newspaper’s analysis of prescribing data and four years of pharmaceutical company payments compiled by the public interest journalism nonprofit ProPublica. And those who prescribed the most typically received the most, the analysis found.
The results provide the most comprehensive look to date at the pharmaceutical industry’s influence on the doctors who treat the 60,000 kids in the country’s largest foster care system — a lucrative target because Medi-Cal pays the bill with little scrutiny.
One Sacramento doctor raked in more than $310,000 in four years to give promotional speeches and an extra $8,500 in meals, records show. Another 224 doctors each got more than $500 in meals, and two of them each received more than $20,000 for travel. The biggest payments went for research, with two Southern California doctors each receiving more than $2 million to conduct drug company-sponsored trials.
Karen de Sá, a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, is a 2014 John Jay/Tow Juvenile Justice Reporting Fellow. The above is an abridged version of the final story in her three-part series which appeared last week. For the full series, including tables, videos, and interactive maps, please click HERE. De Sá welcomes comments from readers.