by Michael J. Shapiro | June 23, 2015

Unite Here, the North American hospitality workers union, has launched an initiative against the financial influence of pharmaceutical companies on continuing medical education, hoping to help curb the rise of health-care costs. The union will be gathering signatures on petitions in more than 30 U.S. cities this summer, with the goal of persuading the Accrediting Council for Continuing Medical Education to stop accepting funding for courses from pharmaceutical companies. The petition is posted at

The drive was announced a year after the debut of the Open Payments database, which keeps record of and makes public the amount of compensation from pharmaceutical companies and device manufacturers to physicians and teaching hospitals. Unite Here claims that physicians, who must take the CME courses, are being unfairly influenced by the pharmaceutical companies that sponsor the classes. "Unite Here is concerned about ballooning costs for its members' health-care plans," noted union officials in a statement. "Prescription drugs, devices and biologicals are a major factor in rising health-care costs, and the union is concerned doctors might be unduly influenced by contributions from Big Pharma to prescribe more expensive drugs when more affordable, generic alternatives are available."

Unite Here represents 270,000 hospitality workers in North America; its largest affiliate is the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 in Las Vegas, a city that hosts many CME meetings. The union acknowledged that such courses are an important source of revenue and jobs for its members, and maintained that representatives have been communicating with health-care industry leaders. "Unite Here understands working with the medical industry will help improve the quality of health-care for workers and their families across the nation," reads the statement.

The reporting of CME-related compensation has faced a good deal of controversy already, said health-care compliance expert Pat Schaumann, director of professional development for the health-care sector at Meeting Professionals International. Open Payments originally allowed a reporting exemption for CME-accredited events, but in October 2014 that exemption was officially deleted, requiring pharma companies and device manufacturers to report such compensation. "Because there is so much controversy over this issue," noted Schaumann, "it could force the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to re-look at the laws surrounding CME reporting."