Wall Street Journal Examines FDA’s High Rate of Employee Attrition
The Wall Street Journal today examines the high rate of employee attrition at the FDA, where "employee burnout" is threatening to "slow the pharmaceuticals-approval process." The problem is acute in certain "critical fields." Approximately 15% of the agency's 442 medical officer jobs remain unfilled, and although 45 physicians have been hired to fill those positions since October, 39 physicians have left the agency, according to the Journal. The attrition rate for FDA medical officers was 11% between 1998 and 2000, compared to less than 6% at both the CDC and the NIH. In addition, the FDA is facing staff shortages of about 6% to 11% among chemists, microbiologists and statisticians. Of the FDA's current employees, 37% of chemists and 22% of medical officers will reach retirement age by 2007.
Current and former FDA staffers, along with an internal agency review of the problem, say reasons for the attrition include "pressure" to increase the pace of drug approvals, higher-paying jobs in the private sector, heavy workloads, an atmosphere that discourages negative actions on drug applications and an aging group of employees. The user-fee law under which the FDA has operated for the last decade requires drug companies to pay "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to speed the approval process, and it also mandates that FDA employees meet "myriad deadlines," placing "extra pressure" on them. Further, the FDA does not have the ability to control workload, which is based on how many applications come in from drug companies at any particular time. FDA employees can also move to the private sector and command salaries that are double what the government pays. In addition, an internal FDA report found that one-third of the agency's employees do not feel "comfortable" expressing "contrary scientific opinions" to conclusions reached in drug trials, and another 33% felt negative actions against applications were "stigmatized." Bob Young, head of the union that represents many FDA employees, said, "The FDA is not the most attractive place to work. ... People can put up with stuff for a fixed amount of time, but not indefinitely."
To address the attrition, the FDA has begun offering retention bonuses and "bounties" of as much as $1,000 for employees who make referrals that result in new hires. According to John Jenkins, the head of an FDA drug-review division, the additional funds coming from the renewal of the user-fee law should help with hiring and retention, but he added, "It will take us some time to get there." Still, much of the money will be used to hire new people instead of increasing salaries, "meaning the problem may continue indefinitely," Jenkins said (Adams, Wall Street Journal, 8/19).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.