NIH halts scientists' outside consulting

Lawmaker expresses dissatisfaction

lawyers urge new regulations

January 23, 2004|By David Willman and Jon Marino | David Willman and Jon Marino,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Top-level officials at the National Institutes of Health - amid sharp criticism from congressional leaders - have stopped accepting consulting fees and stock options from drug companies, the agency's leader told a Senate hearing yesterday.

"As of this moment, no director has any outside biotechnology or pharmaceutical relationship," said the leader of the NIH, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, referring to the directors of the agency's research institutes and centers. "Those have been stopped."

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the subcommittee, nevertheless told Zerhouni and other NIH officials at the hearing that "there are really major problems here." He said, "I believe there will have to be very substantial remedial steps taken."

Citing paid arrangements between biomedical companies and senior NIH scientists disclosed last month by the Los Angeles Times, Specter asked if consulting deals for all NIH employees could be "suspended" immediately.

Specter also voiced dissatisfaction with policies and decisions that exempted about 94 percent of NIH's highest-paid employees from having to publicly disclose payments from drug companies or other outside employers.

"Is there any reason why a governmental employee making as much as the vice president should not be required to fill out a public financial disclosure form?" Specter asked, adding: "This subcommittee is prepared to do it if you don't. And we're prepared to get into changes in law if you don't come up with something that's adequate."

Government lawyers at the hearing said new regulations would probably have to be enacted to achieve Specter's goals. An ethics attorney representing the Department of Health and Human Services, Edgar M. Swindell, said the NIH could adopt restrictions in place at the Food and Drug Administration, where employees are prohibited from owning stock in companies that might be affected by the agency's decisions.

Zerhouni told the subcommittee that an internal review he initiated recently found that, since 1999, 527 agency employees had engaged in paid consulting arrangements with 1,515 outside employers. As of this month, 228 of the employees have active long-term deals with 365 nongovernment employers, according to Zerhouni and other NIH officials.

Zerhouni did not identify how much money had been paid to the NIH scientists in fees or stock options from biomedical companies.

"It is obvious that this poses a very, very substantial problem," Specter said.

Countering the criticisms, Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, who also attended the hearing, said he was comfortable with financial ties between NIH scientists and industry. The relationships, he said, could spur development of useful medicines.

For his part, Zerhouni said that although he wanted to wait for recommendations from a panel of outside advisers, he generally supported requiring more public disclosure and imposing tighter restrictions on consulting with biomedical companies.

"I have reached the conclusion that NIH must make changes that will appropriately restrict current practices," Zerhouni said, adding that he wanted to "completely review the decision" in 1995 by then-NIH Director Harold E. Varmus to lift restrictions on paid outside consulting.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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