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Local doctor is in ... the money

Drug companies pay big bucks for cholesterol expert’s speeches

Dr. Peter Toth
Dr. Peter Toth

STERLING – Dr. Peter Toth has a small world map in his office at the CGH Medical Center Main Clinic. It has no pins.

But if he used pins to mark where he’s gone, it would be covered.

He speaks at conferences throughout the world and collaborates on research with schools such as Johns Hopkins, Baylor, Vanderbilt and University of Chicago. Next week, he will go to the University of Beijing in China.

“With these relationships, I have become a much better informed physician than I would be on my own,” Toth said.

Dr. Paul Steinke, the hospital’s CEO, said Toth was among the world’s experts on cholesterol and lipid, which ties to the prevention of heart disease.

“He does get speaking requests,” Steinke said. “He’s been all over the world – to Prague, India, Australia. He does some family medicine, but 80 percent is cholesterol and lipid. It’s amazing that we have him here in Sterling.”

Pharmaceutical companies pay doctors, including Toth, to give speeches and do research.

Most, however, make only a few hundred dollars a year.

ProPublica, a nonprofit group that is known for investigative journalism, maintains a database of drug companies’ payments to doctors across the United States.

From 2009 to 2012, Toth received $592,705 from the firms, mostly for speaking engagements, according to the database.

Of that money, $255,012 came from GlaxoSmithKline, while Merck and AstraZeneca each gave Toth about $130,000 during that time.

In the Sauk Valley, the second- and third-highest payments to doctors were about $11,000 over 4 years.

In Peoria, Dr. Sachdev Thomas was the leader in payments, with $179,819 over 4 years, all of it for research, according to the ProPublica database. Dr. William Giakas was tops in Rockford, receiving $124,334. In the Quad Cities, East Moline physician Dr. James Petre led the pack with $72,032.

Pharmaceutical companies have been pushed to disclose information on their payments in recent years. Many now do, which prompted ProPublica to set up its database. Starting in September, the Affordable Care Act will require drug companies to release payment information.

Mary Anne Rhyne, spokeswoman for GlaxoSmithKline, said her company was one of the first to disclose its payments to doctors. In 2016, the firm will end direct payments to doctors for speaking engagements and attendance at medical conferences.

“We believe that treating physicians are closest to their patients,” Rhyne said. “They are on the front lines to see how disease manifests itself and what patients need. We want to see if our medicines are working.”

The company will have its employees, including doctors on its staff, take care of speaking duties.

Toth, who moved to Sterling in 2001, said ProPublica is on a “smear campaign.”

“They just look at the money; they don’t look at the benefits,” he said. “I speak around the country and the world because doctors request me to. They want to know what I have to say. Only a small minority of talks that I give deal with specific drugs.”

Toth said doctors don’t prescribe drugs based on which pharmaceutical companies pay them. Insurance companies wouldn’t allow such practices anyway, he said.

“We try to treat our patients with generics as much as possible,” he said.

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