In a Senate hearing Wednesday, Georgia Congressman and former physician Tom Price, who is President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the powerful Department of Health and Human Services, was grilled about stock purchases in health care, pharmaceutical, and medical device companies that may have posed a conflict of interest.
Such questions are right on target.
I once worked as a scientist and physician at the FDA, which is part of Health and Human Services. Like all of my colleagues there, I could not own or buy any stocks or mutual funds of companies whose products were, or could be, regulated by the FDA. The same rules should apply for those in the upper echelons of leadership, such as those serving in Congress working on health policy.
At several points during his career as a congressman, Price appears to have put industry interests over those of citizens and patients. He voted against regulating tobacco, an addictive substance that causes a legion of health problems, as a drug. Could that have been related to his investment in the Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris and Smokeless Tobacco Company Inc.?
As the Wall Street Journal reported, that was just one instance in which Price, a former orthopedic surgeon, sponsored and advocated for laws that could affect the stocks of companies in which he was invested.
This week, new reports emerged that he introduced legislation that would benefit some medical devices companies shortly after buying shares in one. Perhaps in a reciprocal back scratch, the device company’s political action campaign donated to Price’s campaign shortly thereafter.
By combing through ProPublica’s Dollars for Doctors site, blogger Dr. Jen Gunter found that Price had taken money from a Japanese drug company shortly before it settled allegations by the Department of Justice that it paid doctors kickbacks for prescribing its drugs. I was able to confirm that on the Open Payments database at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
As HHS secretary, Price would preside over the FDA, which regulates most tobacco products, as well as drugs, medical devices, and foods. Together, the products that fall under FDA oversight amount to 20 percent to 25 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. The agency is constantly under huge pressure from corporate interests.
My colleagues and I in the National Physicians Alliance have seen how conflicts of interest undermine the practice of good medicine and the conduct of medical research. Imagine being diagnosed with a dreaded disease and wondering whether your doctor is recommending a drug because it’s the best treatment or it’s the biggest bonus to his or her bank account. It happens all too frequently.
Many of my colleagues don’t believe anything we read in medical journals anymore, since they are so swayed by corporate interests.
The American Medical Association’s endorsement of Price for HHS secretary is no comfort. Essentially a guild organization for doctors, the AMA, like most professional medical associations, takes millions of dollars annually from corporate interests, even selling data on doctors’ prescribing habits included on their Physician Masterfile to drug companies and market research firms.
The AMA has lobbied heavily for decades, including against Medicare, to block reforms of the health care system detrimental to the for-profit health insurance industry and ostensibly bad for doctors. A contingent of AMA members has protested the Price endorsement, and some have dropped their membership over the issue.
Price’s campaign contributions may also signal trouble. The top three are from political action committees of health professional organizations (many of which themselves are funded by drug and medical device companies), pharmaceutical and health related products, and insurance companies.
A longtime colleague of Price, Dr. Steven Wertheim, has extolled his skillful, compassionate care as a doctor. That is laudable, but the Department of Health and Human Services needs a leader who bases health care policy on evidence, and for whom “empowering patients” is more than just rhetoric. Based on his record, Price does not appear to be that leader.
Susan Molchan, MD, practices psychiatry in Bethesda, Md., serves on the board of directors of the National Physicians Alliance, and blogs and reviews for HealthNewsReview.org.
Corrected to remove an incorrect statement that the AMA lobbied against the Affordable Care Act. The AMA’s membership is increasing, not declining as originally stated.