CHARLOTTE, N.C. - New federal legislation will help state officials track which local doctors are getting paid big bucks from pharmaceutical companies.
Those payments will be tracked through Medicaid. In less than two months, North Carolina will have to start reporting the information to federal officials.
State Sen. Tommy Tucker was shocked by the numbers Eyewitness News showed him -- payments from pharmaceutical companies to hundreds of local doctors.
“It does smell and it smells to high heaven, as we say down here in the South,” Tucker said.
They are listed in a database, compiled by the nonprofit investigative journalism group, ProPublica.
Seven doctors in the area have received more than $100,000 each from drug companies in the past three years.
Tucker, who sits on the Senate Subcommittee on Health Care, has friends who are doctors. He said he has seen their relationship with drug companies firsthand.
“I knew that docs were given samples, they'd been taken to lunch before, even taken hunting,” Tucker said.
Doctors can receive money from drug manufacturers for many things -- from lavish business dinners, to speaking engagements at seminars, to consulting on drug studies.
Dr. Cecil Farrington, who runs this practice in Salisbury, has accepted more than $531,000 from three different drug companies for research, travel and meals, though ProPublica doesn't detail what exactly the research was for.
Farrington declined to be interviewed.
“There’s always a red flag associated with something like that,” said Dr. Rosemarie Tong, a medical ethics expert at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Tong said even research studies funded by drug companies raises questions.
“Do the payments represent an urging to him, that somehow the studies be positive and in favor of whatever drug is the ultimate end product of the study?,” Tong asked.
Other doctors -- like Dr. Gerald Aronoff in Charlotte -- have received payments almost exclusively for speaking and consulting.
Cephalon, Eli Lilly and Pfizer have paid Aronoff a combined total of more than $154,000 since 2009.
“I give lectures because I enjoy teaching, presenting new data and helping different populations improve their knowledge base so they can better treat their patients,” said Aronoff of Carolina Pain Associates
Aronoff, an award-winning physician and author, said he speaks at educational forums sponsored by drug companies, but doesn't endorse specific drugs.
“Do you think there's a conflict of interest in doctors receiving large sums of money from pharmaceutical companies?” Eyewitness News asked.
“I think generally that sort of raises an issue, I think if nothing else it raises the perception of a conflict of interest,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Al Delia said.
Until now, North Carolina hasn't had any legislation that tracks payments to doctors in private practice. Delia admits they should have been tracking the money.
“I think we walk a fine line and I think we've got a pretty good balance between protecting our physicians and protecting their right to practice as they see fit,” Delia said.
Channel 9 also wanted to know if the doctors who received large sums of money from drug companies were writing the most prescriptions for certain powerful drugs from those companies.
Eyewitness News requested the information from state officials and is still waiting to hear if they will release the identities of those doctors.