By Kyle Cheney, State House News Service
Massachusetts restaurateurs hurting for business in an unsettled economy and frustrated by lawmakers’ willingness to exempt casinos from alcohol service limits are pleading with lawmakers to give them a break this week, over the objection of patient advocates.
That break comes in the form of a House proposal to exempt restaurants from a 2008 state law that bars medical device and pharmaceutical companies from wining and dining doctors, which restaurants say has taken a bite out of their business in the two years since.
The proposal, an amendment to an omnibus "economic development" bill set for House consideration today, is sponsored by Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, whose North End district in Boston is home to dozens of restaurants located near major Boston hospitals.
"My district has a huge number of restaurants, and they make up a large portion of the businesses in my communities that I represent in Boston. I haven’t yet seen any studies or facts that point to cost-savings, healthcare cost savings related to these meetings," Michlewitz said in a phone interview.
Michlewitz said his proposal wouldn’t eliminate a $50 limit on gifts to doctors but would allow device and pharma companies to treat doctors to a meal outside of hospitals and their local offices.
Under current law, companies may still cater food from local restaurants to doctors’ offices but cannot pay for doctors’ meals off-premises. Restaurant advocates say device and drug companies have shown little interest in catering, cutting deep swaths out of their function revenue.
"In some cases it’s a very large portion of their function business," said Janine Harrod, director of government relations for the Mass. Restaurant Assn. "It wasn’t that they were lavish, extravagant dinners. It’s that they were frequent."
A proposal to exempt restaurants from the gift ban failed in the Senate 19-18 during debate on the state budget, but the House proposal — although nearly identical to the Senate’s — gives members an advantage their colleagues in the Senate didn’t have. The House bill, unlike the Senate’s, strikes the gift ban entirely, so Michlewitz’s amendment, since it retains the $50 limit, could be cast as reaffirming the House’s commitment to limiting the influence of industry, while taking a measured step to bolster flagging restaurants.
Patient advocates and their supporters in the Legislature say any attempt to reverse portions of the gift ban would be a step back for controlling healthcare costs.
"If doctors want to talk to pharmaceutical companies, do you want to tell me they can’t afford the cost of their dinner?" said Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge), sponsor of an amendment that would preserve the gift ban. "If I want to talk to a lobbyist, I’m allowed to talk to a lobbyist, only I have to buy the cup of coffee. If we put into a bill that we are going to allow lobbyists all to go back to the good old days of giving us gifts … all hell would break loose in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."
An identical amendment to Wolf’s is sponsored by 12 other House Democrats.
Georgia Maheras, private market policy manager at Health Care for All, said Massachusetts policymakers don’t have enough information about the gift ban’s effect to start making changes. She said research has shown that medical device and prescription drug companies spend nearly double on marketing what they spend on research and development in the U.S.
"We feel for the restaurant industry and the revenue loss that they’ve had," she said. "We can’t be taking steps that reverse our cost containment."
During the Senate’s May 27 debate on the proposal, the sponsor, Sen. Anthony Petruccelli, said some restaurants lost 25 percent to 30 percent of their function business. Petruccelli told the News Service July 6 that many restaurants had invested in technology to host functions.
During debate, Sen. Richard Moore, co-chair of the Health Care Financing Committee, led opposition to the proposal, saying it would "gut" efforts to control health care costs.
"Any provider who takes an oath and thinks they belong at Davio’s with a ham sandwich to learn more about their profession doesn’t deserve their license," added Sen. Mark Montigny (D-New Bedford).