House, Senate To Investigate Potential Conflicts of Interest at NIH
Reps. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) on Friday asked the General Accounting Office to investigate consulting fees and stock options paid by drug companies to NIH employees, the Los Angeles Times reports. The House members called for an "investigation into potential conflicts of interest" at the NIH, citing details from a Times investigation of consulting fees paid to NIH employees, the Times reports (Willman, Los Angeles Times, 1/17). That investigation began in late 1998 and is based on corporate and federal records -- including 13,784 pages of NIH documents detailing annual financial disclosure reports, memos and internal e-mails -- and interviews. The Times found evidence of hundreds of consulting payments to various NIH officials. Such payments are often hidden from public view because a 1998 legal opinion from the Office of Government Ethics allows more than 94% of NIH's top-paid employees to keep their consulting income confidential. NIH Director Elias Zerhouni last month acknowledged concerns about consulting agreements between drug companies and agency employees and said that he has ordered a review of consulting fees paid to NIH scientists. In a letter to Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Zerhouni wrote that the purpose of the review is to "erase any doubts in the minds of Congress or the public that we remain worthy of the trust and confidence that you have placed in us" (California Healthline, 1/5). The House members asked the GAO to:
- Determine the extent to which NIH employees have financial relationships with pharmaceutical companies and whether there is adequate disclosure of these relationships;
- Compare NIH procedures for preventing conflicts of interest with the procedures of other government scientific agencies;
- Determine whether the actions taken by Zerhouni in response to the Times report were adequate in terminating existing conflicts of interest, preventing future conflicts of interest and ensuring disclosure of NIH employees' outside relationships; and
- Provide additional recommendations to reduce future conflicts of interest at the NIH.
Meanwhile, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education is scheduled on Thursday to conduct a hearing on "allegations of improper funding" of some NIH research projects, the Washington Post reports (Weiss, Washington Post, 1/10). Some House members have questioned at least 10 NIH research grants, including grants for studies on emergency contraception, Asian sex workers in San Francisco and women's response to pornography. At an Oct. 2, 2003, hearing on the grants, Rep. Michael Ferguson (R-N.J.) asked NIH for information about the public benefit of the 10 studies. Zerhouni's staff contacted the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which co-sponsored the hearing, to obtain the list of studies about which Ferguson wanted further information. Instead of sending the list of 10 studies, a committee staff member sent a different, longer list. That list, which includes more than 200 grants representing $100 million in funding, was prepared by the Traditional Values Coalition, which says it represents 43,000 churches nationwide. Zerhouni last week sent a letter to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee "resolutely" defending the agency's funding for "dozens" of research studies on HIV/AIDS, sexual behavior and addiction (California Healthline, 1/13). Zerhouni is scheduled to appear before the Senate subcommittee at the Thursday hearing (Los Angeles Times, 1/17).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.