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Pharmaceutical Giant Paid $500,000 to Psychiatrist Who Used Chicago's Poor as Guinea Pigs

Dr. Michael Reinstein reaped a cool half million off his patients' misery.
 
 
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This story was co-published by ProPublica the Chicago Tribune.

Executives inside pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca faced a high-stakes dilemma.

On one hand, Chicago psychiatrist Dr. Michael Reinstein was bringing the company a small fortune in sales and was conducting research that made one of its most promising drugs look spectacular.

On the other, some worried that his research findings might be too good to be true.

As Reinstein grew irritated with what he perceived as the company's slights, a top executive outlined the scenario in an e-mail to colleagues.

"If he is in fact worth half a billion dollars to (AstraZeneca)," the company's U.S. sales chief wrote in 2001, "we need to put him in a different category." To avoid scaring Reinstein away, he said, the firm should answer "his every query and satisfy any of his quirky behaviors."

Putting aside its concerns, AstraZeneca would continue its relationship with Reinstein, paying him $490,000 over a decade to travel the nation promoting its best-selling antipsychotic drug, Seroquel. In return, Reinstein provided the company a vast customer base: thousands of indigent, mentally ill residents in Chicago-area nursing homes.

During this period, Reinstein also faced accusations that he overmedicated and neglected patients who took a variety of drugs. But his research and promotional work went on, including studies and presentations examining many of the antipsychotics he prescribed on his daily rounds.

The AstraZeneca payments, filed as exhibits in a federal lawsuit, highlight the extent to which a leading drug company helped sustain one of the busiest psychiatrists working in local nursing facilities.

In an interview and in response to written questions, Reinstein said industry payments he has received for speeches and other engagements have had no bearing on his research results or patient care. He said he does not "accept any money from corporations to study their medications. This eliminates any possible conflicts of interest."

But he does receive money from the Uptown Research Institute, a for-profit business that conducts industry and federally funded studies on psychotropic drugs to help mentally ill patients.

Reinstein's office in Uptown is adjacent to the research institute, which is owned by John Sonnenberg, a clinical psychologist who describes Reinstein as "a mentor of mine" and "brilliant."

Sonnenberg said drugmakers and others pay his institute to do research, and the group, in turn, pays Reinstein a consulting fee "under $2,000 a month" and has for many years.

"But my research organization is separate from him, financially and organizationally," Sonnenberg said.

While payments from drugmakers to researchers are legal, critics have long argued that they should be publicly disclosed. Legislation to make Illinois one of a handful of states to require disclosure died in Springfield this year but is included in the U.S. House and Senate versions of health care reform proposals.

"We need to know that we can fully trust the relationship we have with our doctor and that another, more lucrative relationship with industry does not outweigh it," Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., who is pushing for such reform, told ProPublica and the Tribune.

Health professionals who have encountered Reinstein have had similar concerns. When he gave promotional presentations about various medications at Grasmere Place nursing home in Chicago, case manager Staci Burton recalled that she was pleased to get free lunches. But she said she wondered why Reinstein put his patients on twice as many drugs as other psychiatrists who treated residents.

"I was thinking, `Why are you using so many medications?' " Burton, who worked at the facility from 2004 to 2006, said in an interview. "(His patients) would have symptoms, they'd have all these side effects, and their doctor was not listening."