HHS Secretary Leavitt Suggests He Might Loosen NIH Conflict-of-Interest Rules
HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt on Tuesday suggested that officials might loosen new rules intended to reduce conflicts of interest among NIH researchers, which have caused several scientists to resign or threaten to do so, the AP/San Francisco Chronicle reports (Freking, AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 4/27). Under the rules, NIH employees cannot engage in outside consulting agreements with pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, health insurers and health care providers. The rules also mandate that about 6,000 high-level NIH employees cannot hold stock in pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies and require current stockholders in the group to sell their shares.
Those opposed to the rules say they will place a financial burden on NIH employees and affect the ability of the agency to recruit and retain researchers. The Assembly of Scientists, a group of 15 elected NIH researchers who represent agency employees and oppose the new rules, has asked NIH Director Elias Zerhouni to eliminate the provision related to stock ownership and allow most agency researchers to enter outside consulting agreements. Zerhouni at a Senate Labor, HHS, Education Appropriations Subcommittee hearing earlier this month said he will seek to revise the rules. Leavitt in early April delayed for 90 days until July 3 the provision in the rules related to stock ownership. The Assembly of Scientists has hired a law and lobbying firm to launch a campaign to challenge the rules (California Healthline, 4/21).
Leavitt in a news conference on Tuesday said he is reviewing the rules and has not made a decision. He compared the situation to an assessment he made as governor of Utah during the 2002 Olympic Games about the level of sensitivity for the metal detectors that screened spectators entering the venues.
Leavitt said, "We wanted to be very sure [people] were safe, so at dress rehearsal we set the magnetometers very high. ... It became quite clear that our first setting might be higher than it needed to be." He said that there are people at NIH "who believe we set the magnetometer a notch too high" in setting the conflict-of-interest rules, adding that he and other officials are "in the process now of receiving feedback." Leavitt added, "[I]n a relatively short time, we'll determine whether or not the magnetometer needs to be notched down a click" (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 4/27).
He said, "We intend to create an atmosphere of utmost faith and fidelity in the conducting of scientific research. We do not intend to back away from commitment that we have made to conduct business [at NIH] in a way that assures integrity" (Alonso-Zaldivar, Los Angeles Times, 4/27).
NIH Deputy Director Raynard Kington said that about 1,000 people have responded during the public comment period. He said that people's most pressing concerns were related to the prohibitions on financial holdings (AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 4/27).