Greater Limits on Outside Income of NIH Employees Needed, Panel Says
The NIH Blue Ribbon Committee on Conflict of Interest Policies on Thursday released a 109-page report calling for greater limitations on the amount and type of compensation that high-level NIH employees can receive from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, the Washington Post reports (Weiss, Washington Post, 5/7). In December, the Los Angeles Times found evidence of hundreds of consulting payments -- often hidden from the public -- to a number of NIH officials. In January, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education that he was forming a panel to investigate allegations of conflicts of interest among NIH employees who received consulting payments and stock options from pharmaceutical companies. At a hearing held by the committee in March, attorneys from the Office of Government Ethics announced new disclosure requirements, under which many director-level NIH scientists will have to publicly disclose income received from outside sources. The disclosure requirements, effective as of Feb. 6, affect 66 senior NIH officials. Edgar Swindell, HHS associate general counsel, also announced in March that the HHS Office of Inspector General had begun an examination of conflict-of-interest policies at NIH (California Healthline, 4/9). In addition, the General Accounting Office is investigating the conflict-of-interest guidelines at NIH, the Los Angeles Times reports.
The panel -- co-chaired by Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Norman Augustine, retired chair of Lockheed Martin -- "did not investigate specific allegations or review individual cases under investigation elsewhere," the report said (Willman, Los Angeles Times, 5/7). However, the panel did find "a complicated and inconsistent patchwork of regulations and practices that had evolved over more than two decades," the Post reports. The report says that many of the NIH rules about outside income "are widely misunderstood by some of the very people to whom they are intended to apply, thereby creating uncertainty as to allowable behavior and adversely affecting morale." The report recommends the following:
- NIH senior managers and others with a say in how grant money is distributed should be banned from consulting for drug or biotechnology companies or paid academic consultancies.
- For NIH employees who do consult for the drug industry or academia, outside earnings should not exceed 50% of their base salary -- or 100% of base salary for health practitioners performing patient care -- and no single source should account for the equivalent of more than 25% of their NIH salary (Washington Post, 5/7).
- NIH employees should not receive outside compensation consisting of stock or stock options because such compensation could cause employees to become "unduly concerned with a company's financial success," the Times reports.
- NIH senior employees should file annual income-disclosure reports that are open to public inspection, and other NIH employees should file "internal disclosure" reports -- which are not made public -- on outside income (Los Angeles Times, 5/7).
- NIH employees should spend no more than 400 hours per year on outside work, except for writing.
- Some restrictions prohibiting NIH employees from participating in outside teaching, writing and speaking engagements should be lifted.
- Zerhouni and Congress should work together to find a way to offer higher salaries to top scientists (Washington Post, 5/7).
Zerhouni called the report "very thoughtful and very thorough," adding that he would consider the recommendations. He said that the proposed changes would "make a huge difference in how the public relates to NIH and the way NIH functions," adding, "I can't stand having the appearance of conflict or uncertainty in our rules that lead to a loss of trust in what we do" (Washington Post, 5/7). Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said that the panel's "thoughtful recommendations will help NIH make certain that its integrity is untarnished by financial conflicts of interest." However, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said that the panel's report "doesn't appear to go far enough" in requiring disclosures of outside income. "We know that there are financial relationships at all levels, not just at the top, and the taxpayers deserve to know the extent of those relationships," Waxman said. On Wednesday, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, of which Waxman is a member, will hold a hearing on outside payments to NIH employees (Los Angeles Times, 5/7). The report is available online. Note: You must have Adobe Acrobat to view the report. NPR's "Morning Edition" on Thursday reported on the panel's recommendations. The segment includes an interview with Shannon Brownlee, senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of a Washington Monthly article on the "massive amount" of funding from pharmaceutical companies for university research budgets (Montagne, "Morning Edition," NPR, 5/6). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.