Merck & Co.’s internal documents about the marketing of the Vioxx painkiller suggest the company may have downplayed the heart risk that later caused the drug’s withdrawal, the U.S. House Committee of Government Reform said. 

The committee will hold a hearing Thursday in Washington about Merck’s marketing of Vioxx and the Food and Drug Administration’s oversight of the company.

The House panel said it requested and received documents about how Merck’s more than 3,000 sales representatives promoted Vioxx to doctors.

“A review of the documents supplied to the committee raises questions as to whether Merck was presenting a fair and balanced presentation to physicians on the safety of Vioxx,” the House panel said in a statement posted on its Web site.

Congress has been examining for months whether the FDA and Merck should have done more to warn consumers about Vioxx’s heart risk before the Sept. 30 withdrawal of the drug. The House committee said the hearing tomorrow also will examine whether the structure of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation should be changed in response to the Vioxx withdrawal.

Two senators, Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa and Democrat Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, introduced a bill on April 27 that would create a separate center within the FDA for monitoring the safety of drugs.

Opponents of the bill include Republicans Mike Enzi of Wyoming, who leads the Senate’s health committee, and Jim Greenwood, president of the Washington-based Biotechnology Organization.

“We look forward to presenting our testimony before the committee and answering the members’ questions,” said Jeanine Clemente, a Merck spokeswoman.

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