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Giving them a sick feeling

Times Staff Writer

America’s pharmaceutical industry is putting out an advisory about the latest potential threat to its health: Michael Moore.

Moore, the filmmaker whose targets have included General Motors (“Roger & Me”), the gun lobby (the Oscar-winning “Bowling for Columbine”) and President Bush (“Fahrenheit 9/11") has now set his sights on the healthcare industry, including insurance companies, HMOs, the Food and Drug Administration -- and drug companies.

At least six of the nation’s largest firms have already issued internal notices to their workforces, preparing them for potential ambushes.

“We ran a story in our online newspaper saying Moore is embarking on a documentary -- and if you see a scruffy guy in a baseball cap, you’ll know who it is,” said Stephen Lederer, a spokesman for Pfizer Global Research and Development.

In September and October, GlaxoSmithKline, the second-largest in retail sales, as well as AstraZeneca and Wyeth, sent out Moore alerts, instructing employees that questions posed by the media or filmmakers should be handled by corporate communications. Heavyweights Sanofi-Synthelabo and Aventis Pharmaceuticals each sent out similar memos before their recent merger. Merck & Co., Abbott Laboratories, Eli Lilly & Co., Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novartis Pharmaceuticals and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries send periodic messages about dealing with the press but haven’t singled out Moore by name. Johnson & Johnson declined to comment.

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Moore’s project is only the latest bit of bad news for the embattled industry. Popular -- and lucrative -- drugs such as Vioxx, Celebrex and Aleve have been linked to cardiovascular problems, and the possibility of lawsuits is looming. Canada is undercutting U.S. drug prices, and health budgets are being slashed. And then there’s increased scrutiny by the FDA, whose oversight of the drug industry and its relationship to it is raising many questions.

“We have an image problem -- not only with Michael Moore, but with the general public,” said M.J. Fingland, senior director of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. “We’re criticized on the Hill and in the press -- put in the category of the tobacco industry, even though we save lives.”

The industry, Fingland said, has made great strides in the last three years -- ever since a new ethics policy was implemented in 2001. Drawn up with the help of the American Medical Assn. and other medical specialty groups, it restricted the types of gifts given to doctors, for example, setting a $100 ceiling on each. Although pharmaceutical companies can still sponsor meetings, they no longer have free rein to treat doctors to five-star dinners or pick up their hotel tabs.

“Giveaways, lavish trips are a thing of the past,” Fingland said. “We’ve cleaned up the business considerably.”

Despite the improvement, pharmaceutical executives are bracing for the worst.

“Moore’s past work has been marked by negativity, so we can only assume it won’t be a fair and balanced portrayal,” said Rachel Bloom, executive director of corporate communications for the Wilmington, Del.-based AstraZeneca. “His movies resemble docudramas more than documentaries.”

Rumors are already flying within the industry about Moore’s moviemaking tactics. Moore, it is said, has hired actors to portray pharmaceutical salesmen who offer gifts to doctors who promote their products. There’s also word that he’s offered physicians $50,000 apiece to install secret cameras in their offices in an effort to document alleged corruption.

In September, employees said that Moore was shoving a microphone at people at GlaxoSmithKline, Bloom notes, even though he was in town only for a radio appearance.

“We have six business centers nationwide, all of which report ‘sightings,’ ” Bloom said. “Michael Moore is becoming an urban legend.”

Tentatively titled “Sicko,” Moore’s film will probably be released in the first half of 2006, sometime between the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. No deal has yet been reached, but an announcement is expected after the new year. There’s interest in the industry, he says, on the part of some of the major studios and not just their specialty divisions.

Reached at his home in Michigan, the director declined to say whether he’s hired actors to portray pharmaceutical salesmen and denied paying doctors to help him install secret cameras. (“I didn’t need to. So many doctors have offered to help, for free, in an effort to expose the system.”) He does admit to hanging around hospitals, insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies, including two that have not issued internal alerts.

It’s getting harder and harder to find corporate executives, however, who are willing to sit down for interviews, Moore said.

Moore decided to make a film about healthcare because it’s “a hot-button issue with the average American -- the domestic issue of the day,” he said. “Being screwed by your HMO and ill-served by pharmaceutical companies is the shared American experience. The system, inferior to that of much poorer nations, benefits the few at the expense of the many.”

Tackling the health industry first occurred to the documentarian after he shot a segment for his now-defunct TV show, “The Awful Truth,” about a man fighting his insurance company to pay for a kidney and pancreas transplant. He said the viewer response was enormous -- as was audience reaction to a derogatory line about HMOs in the Jack Nicholson-Helen Hunt movie, “As Good As It Gets.” There was a raw nerve, he ultimately decided, that wasn’t being addressed.

Last summer, the Endeavor agency, which represents Moore, tested the Hollywood waters -- sending out a six-page outline of “Sicko” to a host of independent producers, independent film companies and the major studios. The movie, according to the treatment, would end with Moore sailing to Cuba with ailing Americans to take advantage of that country’s free healthcare. That, he says, was only a joke made on a late-night talk show.

According to the summary, human interest stories about victims of the system will be interspersed with interviews. He will dig up conflict-of-interest concerns aimed at members of Congress overseeing Medicare and will look at politicians who accept campaign contributions from a host of insurance companies, as well as concerns about the “merger mania” in the healthcare industry.

Nancy Pekarek, vice president of corporate media relations for British firm GlaxoSmithKline, said employees are uneasy about an assault.

“We’ve been getting voicemail messages,” she said. “This is their career, after all, and it’s no fun to be targeted. The problem is that Moore’s film [isn’t likely to] reflect the stringent standards of today.”

The movie, Moore said, is only in its early stages “and already people are freaky-deaky.”

While “Sicko” is coming to life, “Fahrenheit” hasn’t been laid to rest. Beginning on Inauguration Day, Moore will be documenting the activities of the Bush administration for “Fahrenheit 9/11 1/2 .”

“The word is out to whistle-blowers, in networks and corporations, that Bush has his sequel -- a second term,” Moore said. “And one bad sequel deserves a good one. What form it takes depends on the ‘improvisation’ of my lead actor. I’m more than happy to share residuals with him if he’d sit down with me for 10 minutes.”


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