The current New York Times Magazine carries a fascinating and quite hilarious profile of Stephen Colbert, of the Colbert Report. Colbert is well known for his parody of a know-nothing rabidly conservative Republican commentator—but according to the article he has taken his comedy into the real world, involving himself directly in those shady instruments of electioneering known as “super PACs.”
For those who haven’t followed super PACs, they are the political equivalent of the CME industry’s Medical Education Communication Companies (MECCs). Super PACs can take unlimited amounts of money from corporations, then turn around and use the money to promote candidates of their choosing—with the stipulation that they are not directly “coordinating” with their favorite candidates, whatever that means. Analogously, MECCs can take unlimited amounts of money from drug companies, then turn around and use the money to pay doctors to promote the company’s products—with the stipulation that they cannot coordinate their CME courses directly with drug companies, again, whatever that means.
In both examples, a third party is being used by corporations to circumvent an inconvenient regulation. In the case of super PACs, companies can circumvent Federal Election Commission (FEC) rules that limit campaign contributions to a maximum of $2500 per individual (super PACs can accept millions from individuals). In the case of MECCs, drug companies circumvent ACCME Standards for Commercial Support forbidding direct payments to doctors for CME, by laundering the money in the form of educational grants to third party CME companies.
Colbert, in an effort to expose how corrupt super PACs are, has actually started his own super PAC, entitled "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow." As quoted in the Times article, Colbert facetiously defends his and other super PACs by pointing out that they are “100 percent legal and at least 10 percent ethical.”
I’ve never heard a better characterization of industry-supported CME. Let’s hope that Colbert continues his unorthodox lessons in the ways of money, corporations, and corruption. For his next project, I suggest he start his own MECC, named, perhaps, “The Institute for Healthcare Education and Prescription Promotion.”