Three weeks ago, the National Institutes of Health announced new rules to govern federally-funded researchers and their financial conflicts of interest. Three years in the making, the policy will affect over 38,000 scientists at 2000 organizations as the NIH attempts to ensure that biomedical research, paid with taxpayer dollars, remains objective.
But none of these changes might have happened were it not for Dr. Charles Nemeroff.
A renowned chairman of psychiatry at Emory University, Nemeroff was a proponent for drugs sold by GlaxoSmithKline, such as the antidepressant Paxil. While earning hundreds of thousands of dollars jetting around the country and giving talks about Paxil to doctors at fancy restaurants, Nemeroff also managed a multi-million dollar grant from the NIH to research drugs under development by Glaxo.
The ensuing scandal became central to an investigation by Senator Charles Grassley into undisclosed payments from companies to prominent physicians—a practice that puts patients at risk and drives up healthcare costs. As Grassley’s lead investigator on the matter, I had a ringside seat as arguably the most powerful psychiatrist in the country was forced from prominence, eventually leaving Emory.
At my new job with the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), a government watchdog, I have continued to study the cozy relationships between physicians and corporations. I also observed as Nemeroff left Emory for a new job at the University of Miami which has a medical school operating under financial strain. But why would this school snatch up a physician with such a history?
According to new emails and other materials shown to me, UM officials had serious concerns about Nemeroff’s history of ethical blunders. However, these emails suggest that Nemeroff’s perceived ability to raise money trumped those concerns. At one point while negotiating with UM for a job, Nemeroff even dangled the possibility of a new funder for the school if he was hired. These emails imply that, despite new federal rules, the public must remain vigilant to ensure that medicine is practiced with the highest regard for ethics and patient safety.
Officials at UM did not respond to detailed and repeated questions about the emails, which include communications by UM President Donna Shalala, who is now facing public scrutiny over a separate ethics scandal involving UM’s football program.
By Paul Thacker.