Recommendations on NIH Conflicts of Interest Inadequate, Lawmakers Say at House Subcommittee Hearing
A report released last week by the NIH Blue Ribbon Committee on Conflict of Interest Policies "fell short of what was needed" to reform agency policies on the amount and form of compensation that high-level employees can receive from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, lawmakers said on Wednesday at a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing, the Los Angeles Times reports (Willman, Los Angeles Times, 5/13). The NIH committee was formed in response to a Los Angeles Times article published in December that found evidence of hundreds of consulting payments -- often hidden from the public -- to a number of NIH officials. In January, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni told the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education that the NIH committee would investigate allegations of conflicts of interest among NIH employees who received consulting payments and stock options from pharmaceutical companies. Last Thursday, the NIH committee released a 109-page report that called for stricter conflict-of-interest policies for high-level NIH employees. The committee -- co-chaired by Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, and Norman Augustine, retired chair of Lockheed Martin -- recommended a ban on paid consultancies for high-level NIH employees and payments of stock or stock options for all NIH employees, as well as public disclosure of income reports for high-level NIH employees, among other recommendations (California Healthline, 5/7). However, at the hearing on Wednesday, lawmakers said that the recommendations were inadequate and warned that they "might take action if more comprehensive reforms are not instituted soon," the Washington Post reports (Weiss, Washington Post, 5/13).
Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) said that the NIH committee "blatantly refused to consider the most important facts," adding, "The panel apparently felt compelled to base its recommendations on their misplaced need to excuse the inexcusable." Deutsch asked Zerhouni "in the strongest possible terms to end the practice today of NIH researchers taking anything of value from a drug or biotech company." He added that current and former NIH leaders "have encouraged the option of corruption" and that HHS attorneys have helped block public disclosure of payments to NIH employees. Rep. Jim Greenwood (R-Pa.), chair of the subcommittee, said, "It is clear from the cases we have reviewed that some NIH scientists are either close to the line (of propriety) or have crossed the line. This has been a persistent problem at NIH for years ... because of a deliberate, permissive attitude." Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said, "Unfortunately, certain scientists have been trusted to determine when their personal financial involvement with drug and biotech companies poses a conflict of interest with their responsibilities to the public. And those scientists have not been subject to rigorous review or full disclosure. ... The secret purchase of information and influence must stop." Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) added, "Americans need to know that when NIH reaches a conclusion, that conclusion is based on hard evidence and the scientific method. We need to act now to impose appropriate conflict-of-interest standards so that America and the global scientific community can continue trusting in NIH" (Los Angeles Times, 5/13). According to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Joe Barton (R-Texas), HHS rules under which NIH "scientists are not required to disclose their outside arrangements to the agency" are "likely to end," CongressDaily reports (Rovner, CongressDaily, 5/13).
Greenwood said that "delays and obstinacy" of the legal staff at HHS have delayed the investigation of the subcommittee. He added that HHS has declined to have the department general counsel testify at a hearing of the subcommittee scheduled for Tuesday. Dingell said, "This investigation has been slowrolled and stonewalled." Barton said, "We have found NIH to be less than cooperative, and that's going to change. They can cooperate cooperatively, or we will make them cooperate coercively" (Washington Post, 5/13). Greenwood said because NIH and HHS officials have not submitted requested information related to payments by pharmaceutical and biotech companies to NIH employees, the subcommittee will ask the companies to provide the information (CongressDaily, 5/13).
Zerhouni, who appeared before the subcommittee for the first time since the investigation began, "conceded for the first time that the agency's policies had 'failed,'" the Times reports (Los Angeles Times, 5/13). However, he "defended the steps NIH has taken" to address the issue, such as the "creation of a new NIH Ethics Advisory Committee to oversee outside activities," CongressDaily reports (CongressDaily, 5/13). Zerhouni also said that he has banned outside consultancies by high-level NIH employees involved in decisions to award grants (Washington Post, 5/13). In March, Zerhouni imposed public disclosure requirements on 93 additional NIH officials. He said that on Wednesday he asked the Office of Government Ethics to authorize him to demand public disclosure from an additional 500 scientists (Washington Post, 5/13). The move would leave more than 4,000 NIH employees exempt from public disclosure requirements, according to the Los Angeles Times. Zerhouni also said that he has reviewed the recommendations made by the NIH committee and would "move ahead as appropriate" (Los Angeles Times, 5/13). "We should be more transparent, more vigilant about oversight, and we need to tighten the rules," Zerhouni said. However, he added that "it would be a mistake to ban all compensated activities with outside organizations. Such an action would be bad for science, unfair to employees, and ultimately hinder our efforts to improve the nation's health" (AP/Long Island Newsday, 5/13). NIH committee co-chairs Alberts and Augustine testified that they are "convinced that allowing paid-industry consultancies might help NIH attract or retain talented scientists," the Los Angeles Times reports (Los Angeles Times, 5/13).
NPR's "Morning Edition" on Thursday reported on the subcommittee hearing. The segment includes comments from Barton; Dr. Jordan Cohen, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges; Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.); and Zerhouni (Hamilton, "Morning Edition," NPR, 5/13). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.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.