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German court allows doctors to take drug firm gifts

BERLIN (Reuters) – German doctors working for the National Health Service who accept favors, gifts, and even holidays from drug companies worth as much as 10,000 euros ($12,500) cannot be charged with corruption, according to a landmark ruling on Friday by a top German court.

The Court of Justice ruled NHS doctors cannot be considered civil servants when it comes to accepting favors from drug makers, leaving the judicial system no legal ground to challenge the practice of favors given in return for prescriptions.

In one of the cases that triggered the ruling, a doctor took 10,000 euros in fees for lectures he never held in return for prescribing a certain drug. The doctor and the pharmaceutical sales agent got fined but the sales agent appealed.

“In this way, patients cannot be completely sure if a prescription is medically motivated or if it is influenced by the marketing strategy of a drug company,” said the Statutory Health Insurance Association GKV, criticizing the decision.

A physicians’ association code of conduct will continue to oversee charges of corruption. It is seen as laxer than criminal courts because it has limited means to prosecute.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Health defended the decision taken by the court and said doctors are not representatives of public health insurances but rather work on a freelance basis.

The opposite would be misleading, he said, adding that: “We don’t want to challenge the status quo on self-employment.”

The president of the German Medical Association, Frank Ulrich Montgomery, welcomed the ruling, saying that freelance doctors working for the National Health Service are neither employees nor functionaries of a public agency.

Experts say graft in Germany’s healthcare system is widespread as drug developers try to encourage doctors to prescribe treatments other than generic drugs.

Germany’s statutory medical insurers, which provide cover for nine out of ten Germans, spent 30.2 billion euros ($38.07 billion) on medication last year.