FDA Chief’s Conflicts of Interest and the “Revolving Door” Problem

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When a government official holds or has held a professional position in the same industry that he or she is charged with regulating, it raises questions about whether public or private interests are being served.

The “revolving door” between the public and private sectors is a major impediment to responsible democratic governance.

The current U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner, Dr. Robert M. Califf, has extensive pharmaceutical industry ties and has been accused of undermining public health and safety.

With President-elect Donald Trump set to choose a new FDA chief, ClassAction.com looks at how an official’s non-government experience can muddy the regulatory waters.

What Is the Revolving Door?

The revolving door refers to the practice of switching back and forth between public and private employment.

This phenomenon is commonly observed among members of Congress who leave the federal government and become lobbyists, although it can occur whenever someone with government experience gains employment in a private sector job where they can influence public policy decisions, or vice versa.

Lobbying’s return on investment bears out its effectiveness.

Although generally seen as negative, the revolving door has a practical upside. Namely, corporate experience gives regulators and policymakers a deeper understanding of complex issues that, in a capitalist system, cannot be divorced entirely from private interests.

However, the opposite also holds true: once a public official leaves office, he or she can leverage knowledge about the workings of government into lucrative private sector compensation.

Lobbying’s return on investment bears out its effectiveness. Research conducted by the Sunlight Foundation found that from 2007-2012, 200 corporations spent $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions and got back $4.4 trillion in federal business and support.

In other words, for every dollar these corporations spent on influencing politics, they received $760 from the government.

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Credit: UnitedRepublic.org/Represent.us

Robert Califf, Big Pharma, and the FDA

Current FDA commissioner Robert Califf, a cardiologist and clinical researcher tapped by President Obama to run the nation’s drug regulatory agency, was criticized at the time of his nomination for his drug company connections.

The New York Times reported that Dr. Califf “has deeper ties to the pharmaceutical industry than any FDA commissioner in recent memory, and some public health advocates question whether his background could tilt him in the direction of an industry he would be in charge of supervising.”

Dr. Califf’s disclosed industry ties include financial support from Johnson & Johnson, Lilly, Merck, Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, GlaxoSmithKline, Medtronic, and Bayer. He also has financial links to Gambro, Regeneron, Gilead, AstraZeneca, Roche, Genetech, Medscape LLC, Portola Pharmaceuticals, and other companies.

Dr. Califf first joined the FDA as deputy commissioner for medical products and tobacco. Before his government tenure, he ran a multimillion-dollar clinical research center at Duke University that was a major contractor to the pharmaceutical industry. The center was more than 60% industry-funded.

Califf Ran Troubled Xarelto Trial

While at Duke, Johnson & Johnson paid Dr. Califf to conduct an important clinical study of the blood-thinner Xarelto. That study was criticized for being biased in the drug’s favor.

Although the FDA approved the anticoagulant Xarelto, FDA scientists expressed misgivings about its safety and effectiveness, warning that it could pose greater stroke and/or bleeding risks than its predecessor, warfarin.

Xarelto is a blockbuster drug for Johnson & Johnson but it has also been the target of thousands of lawsuits alleging the drug caused serious bleeding events and deaths. Unlike warfarin, Xarelto does not have an antidote to stop internal bleeding.

Some Question Califf’s Involvement in 21st Century Cures Act

Congress recently passed the 21st Century Cures Act, a sweeping health bill some say is too friendly to drug and device companies.

“It should be unimaginable that the most senior [FDA] officials would collude with the lead medical device trade association.”

Leading the legislation’s criticism was Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen. In 2015, when an earlier version of the bill was being considered and Dr. Califf was awaiting confirmation as FDA chief, Public Citizen criticized him for participating in at least one high-level strategy meeting with the industry about the bill.

“It should be unimaginable that the most senior Food and Drug Administration officials would collude with the lead medical device trade association to write legislation to weaken the agency’s regulatory oversight and approval standards for medical devices. But that is exactly what appears to have happened,” said Public Citizen’s Dr. Michael Carmone in a statement.

New Nomination, New Questions

The incoming Trump administration hasn’t officially nominated an FDA commissioner, but rumored picks are drawing scrutiny.

Leading candidates to run Trump’s FDA include Jim O’Neill and Dr. Scott Gottlieb.

Potential nominee Jim O’Neill, a self-described libertarian, served as principal associate secretary of health and human services under George W. Bush and is a managing director at Peter Thiel’s Mithril Capital Management.

While Mr. O’Neill doesn’t have a medical background, perhaps more worrying is his endorsement of what he calls “progressive approval,” which would allow drugs proven safe—but not necessarily effective—by the FDA to be marketed.

Another potential Trump FDA pick, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, has medical credentials as well as government experience, having served as a senior adviser to the FDA commissioner in 2003-2004, senior adviser to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in 2004, and FDA deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs from 2005-2007. But Dr. Gottlieb also has deep pharmaceutical industry ties, reports Reuters.

Trump’s eventual nominee requires Senate approval. But despite a divided government, the revolving door between government and industry has bipartisan support: after all, Robert Califf was confirmed in an 89-4 vote.

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