WASHINGTON — Two congressional leaders on Monday called upon the director of the National Institutes of Health to account for all payments that drug companies have made to researchers at the federal agency over the past four years.
The leaders -- Reps. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) and James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.) -- said that their letter was in response to articles in Sunday editions of the Los Angeles Times detailing millions of dollars in consulting fees and stock options paid by companies to NIH employees.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
NIH payments -- In an article Tuesday in Section A about two congressmen seeking records of National Institutes of Health researchers' links to drug companies, a photograph of Richard Scrushy, former chief executive of HealthSouth Corp., was mistakenly used instead of a picture of Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.). The caption also misidentified Scrushy as Greenwood.
Tauzin is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee; Greenwood is chairman of the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
"The receipt of outside payments, even though approved, raises concerns about whether the integrity of NIH clinical research has been affected and whether the honor system used by NIH to [monitor] NIH scientists and other conflict-of-interest rules has been violated," the congressmen wrote.
Their two-page letter requests that the NIH director, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, provide responses by Jan. 8.
John Burklow, a spokesman for NIH, said that Zerhouni would cooperate with the congressional inquiry.
"He has ordered an immediate review of all relevant consulting agreements," Burklow said, adding, "NIH takes these issues very seriously."
Among the hundreds of biomedical-company payments documented by The Times were consulting fees accepted by the directors of two NIH institutes. All of the institute directors were authorized to enter into for-pay arrangements with industry as of November 1995 by an internal memorandum from then-NIH Director Harold E. Varmus. The memo, made public by The Times, also freed all NIH employees to accept stock or stock options as compensation from industry.
The Times also reported that fewer than 6% of NIH employees who make at least $102,168 are now required to file reports of outside income that are available for public inspection, according to agency records.
Greenwood, in an interview after sending the letter to the NIH, said that the consulting deals disclosed in the articles amounted to "an unacceptable and outrageous situation. We're going to put an end to these practices."
"We are relying on the National Institutes of Health to be an agency that we can trust to operate in the interests of every American," said Greenwood. "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."
The letter from Greenwood and Tauzin to the NIH director requested a wide range of information and materials, including:
* A list of all consulting arrangements entered into by NIH employees, plus the amounts of fees or stock options received. Zerhouni's compliance with this request could provide details of deals previously held confidential by the NIH. Employees whose income reports are kept confidential are instructed by the government forms not to identify the amount of money they receive.
* A listing of all cooperative-research agreements, grants and contracts that the NIH has entered into with any company that has paid fees or stock options to an NIH official.
* A copy of Varmus' 1995 memo.
* Records of any proposed consulting arrangements by NIH institute directors that were turned down within the past six years by Dr. Ruth L. Kirschstein, the deputy director of NIH. Kirschstein during that period also served as interim NIH director, before President Bush nominated Zerhouni in spring 2002.
* Records reflecting communications "to and from any ethics advisors at NIH ... about outside consulting arrangements with drug companies."
Greenwood said he was confident that Zerhouni "seems to get it."
"He and I have a shared interest in cleaning up this mess," he added.
Greenwood and Tauzin earlier this year questioned several payments from nonprofit organizations to President Clinton's director of the National Cancer Institute, an arm of the NIH.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), a member of Greenwood's subcommittee, said he doubted that the GOP leadership would take steps necessary to protect NIH decision-making from the influence of drug-development companies.
"The problem is far more wide-ranging than we previously understood," Waxman said in an interview. "It is imperative that we have full disclosure. 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."
Times researcher Janet Lundblad in Los Angeles contributed to this report.