Lawmakers Request Review of Private-Sector Payments to NIH Employees
Reps. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.) on Monday wrote to NIH Director Elias Zerhouni to request a review of all payments that pharmaceutical companies have made to the agency's researchers over the past four years, the Los Angeles Times reports. The letter was in response to an investigation in the Sunday edition of the Times that detailed millions of dollars in consulting fees and stock options that private companies have paid to NIH employees in recent years (Willman, Los Angeles Times, 12/9). The newspaper found evidence of hundreds of consulting payments to ranking NIH officials in an investigation that began in late 1998; the Times' sources included corporate and federal records -- comprising 13,784 pages of NIH documents detailing annual financial disclosure reports, memos and internal e-mails -- and interviews. 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. In addition, the agency responded to a general loosening of restrictions on government employees' outside pursuits in the mid-1990s by rescinding policies that prohibited NIH employees from accepting consulting fees and stock payments, limited outside income to $25,000 annually and capped outside work to 500 hours a year (California Healthline, 12/8). Tauzin and Greenwood requested that Zerhouni respond to their inquiry by Jan. 8 and assemble the following information:
- A list of all NIH employees' consulting arrangements and payments, including employees who were previously exempt from disclosing specific payments received;
- A list of all cooperative research agreements, grants and contracts with companies that have paid fees or stock options to NIH officials;
- A copy of a 1995 memo written by former NIH Director Harold Varmus that officially eased policies that had restricted private sector employment;
- Records of any consulting arrangements that NIH institute directors proposed but that were rejected; and
- Ethics advisors' records regarding consulting arrangements with drug makers.
NIH spokesperson John Burklow said Zerhouni will cooperate, adding, "He has ordered an immediate review of all relevant consulting agreements." Greenwood called the consulting deals "unacceptable and outrageous," saying, "The directors and the staff at the NIH are going to have to decide which master they want to serve: They're either there to do a mission, which is to find cures for diseases, or they're there for personal enrichment." Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said, "The problem is far more wide-ranging than we previously understood. ... If NIH can't set rules to protect the integrity of scientists, then Congress should. But it's hard for me to imagine that Congress will because Congress is so beholden to the pharmaceutical industry" (Los Angeles Times, 12/9).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.