NIH To Review Consulting Fees, Guidelines for Agreements
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, the Los Angeles Times reports. In a letter to Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Zerhouni wrote that he has "ordered a review of financial disclosure requirements" and a review of all nongovernmental payments to all NIH employees since Jan. 1, 1999. Zerhouni wrote that "recommendations for appropriate action" will be made within a few weeks and that he also is assigning a panel to "fully review ethical policies and practices at NIH and propose recommendations" for improvement. However, he wrote that an "ongoing review ... shows no evidence that patients were harmed or that decisions were influenced" by private consulting deals. The letter states that the purpose of the reviews 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." Zerhouni's letter comes after a recent Times investigation into public-private deals (Willman, Los Angeles Times, 12/29/03). 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. In a poll of NIH and 34 other federal agencies on the percentage of eligible employees filing public reports on outside income, NIH had the lowest percentage of filings, according to the Times (California Healthline, 12/8/03). Tauzin and Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), chair of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, on Dec. 8, 2003, sent a letter asking Zerhouni to fully disclose industry payments and other documents. Greenwood said that within the next three months the subcommittee will hold at least one hearing on conflict-of-interest policies at NIH. "We have undisclosed contractual, financial relationships between federal employees and businesses very closely associated with their agency ... I think that's cause for serious alarm," Greenwood said. In his letter, Zerhouni maintained that "collaborations between public and private scientists and institutions are essential to translating our discoveries into effective treatments" (Los Angeles Times, 12/29/03).
In related news, a report critical of some research initiatives funded by the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health has "reignited controversy over the organization's direction and destiny," the Washington Post reports (Vedantam, Washington Post, 12/24/03). That report -- issued by the Treatment Advocacy Center, the Public Citizen Health Research Group and others --found that severe mental illnesses account for 58% of all U.S. mental illnesses, but NIMH spends 28% of its research budget on those problems and only 5.8% of its budget on "clinical issues that may actually help people," Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a research psychiatrist and co-author of the report, said. Although NIMH's budget doubled from $661 million to $1.3 billion from 1997 to 2002, the percentage of research funds spent on projects involving serious mental illnesses decreased from 32.1% to 28.5%, according to Torrey, who noted that the agency is spending millions of dollars to study the mental processes of animals (California Healthline, 11/20/03). According to the Post, the report has "more critics than friends." Groups such as the American Psychiatric Association, the National Mental Health Association, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the American Psychological Society have rebuffed criticisms cited in the report. Thomas Insel, director of NIMH, said the report is "partly right, in that there is a tradition at NIMH on spending money in ways that have not necessarily contributed to reducing the burden of illness," adding, "My vision is we have a public health mission to address mental disorders, and we are not there to do extensive research on mental health" (Washington Post, 12/24/03).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.