Just ask the former financial aid directors at Johns Hopkins and Columbia Universities and the University of Texas at Austin: It is not a good career move to become the poster child for perceived wrongdoing in an emerging national controversy.
Like those college officials who became New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo's targets in last year's student loan scandal, Melissa DelBello, a researcher at the University of Cincinnati, appears to be directly in the cross hairs of the latest campaign of Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been a vocal critic of numerous aspects of university and nonprofit operations in recent years.
Last August, in advocating for a national reporting system of drug company payments to doctors to help ensure that patients know about potential conflicts of interest for doctors who might prescribe medications, Grassley singled out DelBello, associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Cincinnati, for what he said was her failure to accurately report her outside income in 2003 and 2004 from Astra Zeneca, a pharmaceutical company whose drug Seroquel she had studied in 2002.
On April 2, Grassley stepped up his criticism. He took to the Senate floor to "report on the actions of one physician" -- DelBello -- "to explain how industry payments to medical experts can affect medical practice."
Grassley said in his speech that further information he had requested from the university about DelBello's income for 2005-7 had differed sharply from information he had received directly from the drug company.
"The numbers didn't add up," Grassley said. "Between 2005 to 2007, Dr. DelBello reported about $100,000 in outside income to her university. But I found out that Astra Zeneca had paid her over $238,000 -- that's a big difference."
Further, Grassley said, Astra Zeneca reported paying $60,000 to an Ohio corporation based in Cincinnati's psychiatry department, which he said DelBello had set up for her "personal financial purposes."
In a prepared statement last week, issued in response to a request for comment from DelBello or the institution, university officials said: "Dr. DelBello had previously disclosed to the university and its Institutional Review Board (IRB) her relationships with pharmaceutical companies. The university has reviewed issues raised about Dr. DelBello and understands that discrepancies in the amount of income reported in 2005-2006 were due to her reliance on 1099 forms that she received. Dr. DelBello has been open and fully cooperative with the university as it has addressed Sen. Grassley’s concerns."
The statement added that the university takes conflicts of interest seriously and that it has strengthened its reporting policies in the last two years. University officials did not respond to specific questions about the alleged payments to the private corporation, known as MSZ Associates, Inc.
The situation involving DelBello makes it clear, Grassley said in his Senate speech, that his legislation requiring doctors to report their outside income is necessary. He said, harshly: "This situation is unfortunate on so many levels. It is unfortunate for the University of Cincinnati that relied on the representations of its faculty; it is unfortunate for patients who once believed that their doctor was not for sale; and it is unfortunate that we are in a day and age where a bill promoting transparency for millions andmillions of dollars going from big drug companies to American doctors is necessary."
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