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Friday, January 8, 2010

Conflict of Interest at HHS

Foxnews has the story.

MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, one of the leading academic defenders of health care reform, is taking heat for failing to disclose consistently that he was under contract with the Department of Health and Human Services while he was touting the Democrats' health proposals in the media. Gruber, according to federal government documents, is under a $297,600 contract until next month to provide "technical assistance" in evaluating health care reform proposals. He was under a $95,000 HHS contract before that.

But while he was being paid to provide his services to HHS, he was also fending off health care reform critics in the media. Gruber was one of the prominent analysts to rebut an insurance industry report from PricewaterhouseCoopers in October saying premiums would shoot up if a health care bill passes. And he has recently written columns defending specific provisions in the House and Senate bills, particularly the "Cadillac tax" on high-cost insurance plans.

The most similar story I have run across to this is the case of Dr. Charles Nemeroff. Nemeroff worked as a Psychiaty Professor at Emory University for nearly three decades. For most of that time, Nemeroff traded on his reputation and was able to secure payments from major drug manufacturers like Pfizer all while writing positive reviews about their drugs. Nemeroff almost never disclosed this conflict. Hundreds, if not thousands, of articles were corrupted and tainted.

We have a similar dynamic here. Dr. Gruber was all over the media defending health care reform. He was speaking as himself when in fact he was employed by HHS the whole time. When a conflict isn't revealed, everything that individual says is tainted. What would the reader have thought about the positive review of the Pfizer drug if they knew that Nemeroff had recently received six figures from Pfizer? The same dynamic is true. If you have a clear bias, you must reveal it. You can't present yourself as objective when you simply aren't objective. Neither Nemeroff nor Gruber were objective and yet that's how they presented themselves.

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