House Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Awards, Prizes for NIH Scientists and Directors
Lawmakers on Tuesday are expected to release a list of 122 awards and prizes totaling $575,000 that universities and other NIH grant recipients have given to NIH scientists and administrators since 1999, the Wall Street Journal reports. The disclosure is expected to take place at a House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee meeting, the third in a series of hearings on NIH officials' "lucrative" outside activities, including consulting jobs with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. House investigators say some of the awards create "at least the appearance of impropriety," the Journal reports (Wysocki, Wall Street Journal, 6/22). The subcommittee began an investigation into the conflict-of-interest issue in response to a Los Angeles Times article published in December that found evidence of hundreds of consulting payments -- which often were hidden from the public -- to a number of NIH officials. In January, NIH Director Dr. Elias Zerhouni told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education that the NIH Blue Ribbon Committee on Conflict of Interest Policies would investigate allegations of conflicts of interest among agency employees who received consulting payments and stock options from pharmaceutical companies. However, lawmakers have criticized as inadequate a report from the committee and recent ethics reforms announced by Zerhouni. Zerhouni last month announced that NIH will require all agency employees to report the financial details of paid consulting agreements with pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies over the past five years or face dismissal (California Healthline, 5/19).
Zerhouni is expected to appear before the panel today to propose regulations for awards and outside consulting. Although Zerhouni has said that some of the blue-ribbon panel's recommendations -- such as limiting consulting fees from medical industries and banning outside consulting by high-ranking NIH officials -- are "draconian," some lawmakers are seeking a complete ban on outside activities, including writing and speaking engagements. In addition, the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Friday used NIH "as a springboard into a wider investigation of ethics" in 15 federal agencies to determine whether practices uncovered at NIH exist elsewhere.
Meanwhile, as NIH's budget has grown, lawmakers are "pressing agency officials to explain how they spend all the money -- and why there isn't more bang for these bucks" as far as translating into treatments for diseases, the Journal reports. During the past five years, Congress has doubled NIH's annual budget, but this year, the 27 institutes and centers have received only "tiny increases," partly because of large fiscal deficits, according to the Journal (Wall Street Journal, 6/22).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.