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NIH acts to block consulting deals

Published Aug. 27, 2005

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 Thursday.

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

Citing paid arrangements between biomedical companies and senior NIH scientists disclosed last month by the Los Angeles Times, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services appropriations subcommittee, 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 the 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.

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, which prohibits employees from owning stock in companies that may be affected by the agency's decisions.