Report finds poor ethics policing at CDC

AP News
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Posted: Dec 18, 2009 5:39 PM

The government's top public health agency frequently failed to police its outside experts for conflicts of interest, according to a new government report released Friday.

The report looked at how well the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked for and dealt with conflicts among about 250 scientific experts who served on 17 advisory panels in 2007.

Panel members are supposed to disclose whether they have been paid by _ or own stock in _ drug companies or other entities that might have an interest in the panel's decisions. The panels provide advice to the CDC on topics such as how many people should get vaccinated and guidelines for cancer screenings.

Almost none of the 250 advisers that year properly or completely filled out forms in which they were required to state potential conflicts of interest, according to the report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Inspector General.

The report concluded that the CDC failed to follow-up with some of the experts who disclosed potential conflicts: 85 because of jobs or grants, 28 with stock ownership and 13 who received consulting fees.

CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden, who took over the agency in June, filed a response that said the agency has improved its monitoring for conflicts of interest. CDC also is taking other steps to simplify reporting of conflicts and to develop new ways of finding out about experts' grants, he wrote.

Conflicts of interest are not unusual. Many science experts have links to companies that sell medical products, or work for universities that seek government grants. In some cases, experts avoid conflicts by not voting on certain issues, or by selling off their stock. The CDC can also work out an agreement with an expert _ called a waiver _ spelling out when they can cast votes.

But even in those cases, the rules were sometimes disregarded. Seven people _ all of them on the Advisory Board on Radiation and Worker Health _ voted on matters barred on their waivers, the report found.

CDC officials disputed that finding. It may have appeared from meeting minutes that the experts voted inappropriately, but a review found nothing inappropriate actually occurred, said CDC spokesman Tom Skinner.

The Office of the Inspector General has been examining conflicts of interest at several federal health agencies, including the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.

One member of Congress, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said the findings were concerning.

"The work of the CDC is too important to be tainted in any way," DeLauro said in a statement. She sits on the appropriations subcommittee that has sway over the budgets of the CDC and other health agencies.