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By Nicole Gaouette
April 6, 2009
U.S. Senator Charles Grassley expanded his investigation into drug company influence on the practice of medicine by asking a nonprofit mental-health-advocacy group about its funding.
In a letter sent today to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, based in Arlington, Virginia, Grassley asked the nonprofit group to disclose any financial backing from drug companies or from foundations created by the industry. The Iowa Republican, in a series of hearings and investigations, has focused on financial ties between the drug industry, doctors and academic institutions. His efforts have led New York-based Pfizer Inc. to begin disclosing consulting payments to U.S. doctors, and Harvard Medical School in Boston to reexamine its conflict-of-interest policies. Now Grassley is expanding his inquiries to nonprofit groups.
“I have come to understand that money from the pharmaceutical industry shapes the practices of nonprofit organizations which purport to be independent in their viewpoints and actions,” Grassley wrote in his letter. Officials at the National Alliance for Mental Illness didn’t return calls for comment. The group identifies itself as the largest grassroots organization in the U.S. for people with mental illness and their families. The group came under scrutiny in 1999, when the magazine Mother Jones reported that 18 drug companies gave the group $11.7 million from 1996 to mid-1999. The article reported that at one point an executive of Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly & Co. worked out of the nonprofit group’s headquarters.
A 2007 annual report showed that the group’s corporate partners at that time included Madison, New Jersey-based Wyeth; London-based GlaxoSmithKline Plc; Eli Lilly, which makes Prozac; and the Washington-based trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
A separate financial report shows the National Alliance for Mental Illness brought in $10.5 million in contributions in the year that ended June 30, 2007. The donors aren’t broken out.
Vera Sharav, president of the Alliance for Human Research Protection, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes ethical research, said the National Alliance for Mental Illness may have drawn Grassley’s attention because it lobbies Congress for mental-health funding.
“Academics and physicians give an appearance of authority,” Sharav said by telephone. “Industry gives them the money. Grassley has been going after each group systematically, and the dots are being connected.”
In January, Grassley and Senator Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat, reintroduced the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, which would require manufacturers to report on payments to doctors and any physician-owned facility.
Grassley’s investigations have led to changes in industry and academia. Pfizer made its announcement about disclosing physician payments in February. In March, the American Psychiatric Association said it would no longer accept industry support for symposiums and meals at its annual meetings.
On April 1, Stanford University School of Medicine, near Palo Alto, California, said it would post on a Web site all income faculty earned from royalty payments and outside consulting.
In the March 31 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, a group of researchers and physicians called for professional medical associations to transform their operations to avoid conflicts of interest posed by “extensive funding from pharmaceutical and device companies.” The group included Steven Nissen, a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist.