News and analysis
September 06, 2010

Senate Inquiry Seeks to Curtail Corporate Influence on Medical Field

Sen. Charles E. Grassley’s inquiry into the industry ties of 33 medical nonprofit groups is part of a broader effort by the senator and others to expose and curtail corporate influence on the medical field.

The Senate Finance Committee has put pressure on pharmaceutical companies to reveal more about the money they provide for continuing medical education programs­—like the ones offered by some of the nonprofit groups now under review­—and last year’s health-overhaul law requires medical-device and drug makers to report all payments to doctors worth more than $10 starting in 2013.

Professional associations like the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education have been tightening up their codes to ensure that educational programs present objective information.

Last year, the Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, proposed widening the scrutiny to include patient-advocacy and “disease-specific” groups.

It issued a report, cited by Senator Grassley in his letter to the 33 nonprofit groups, saying Congress should require pharmaceutical, medical-device, and biotechnology companies to publicly report payments they make to those groups (among other recipients).

Until Congress acts, the companies should voluntarily report those payments, it said.

Making Grants Public

Some companies already do that. Eli Lilly in 2007 became the first pharmaceutical company to create a “grants registry,” where it posts quarterly reports on every contribution it has made to a health charity or medical association.

Its report for the second quarter of 2010 lists payments to a wide range of groups, including charities like the Alzheimer’s Association, American Diabetes Association, and National Kidney Foundation of Illinois. Other drug and medical-device companies have since started posting similar lists, including AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, and Medtronic.

“It would be disingenuous to say we did not hear concerns about these types of grants,” says Ed Sagebiel, senior director of corporate communications for Eli Lilly. “We have acted upon those and have provided a means for showing the public how the funding is being used.”

Some medical companies also back more disclosure of industry payments. The Medical Device Manufacturers Association, for example, wanted the health-care law to require corporations to disclose their payments to nonprofit medical-specialty societies, says Thomas C. Novelli, the group’s director of federal affairs.

His group represents mostly small and medium-size companies, and they too are interested in seeing how much money their bigger competitors are giving to those groups, which influence how medical procedures are coded by government and private health-insurance programs, he says.