Tuesday, January 22, 2008

UMDNJ Monitor Alleged "No Research Compliance Capability"

We have done a long series of posts about the troubles at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), the largest US health care university. The university now is operating under a federal deferred prosecution agreement under the supervision of a federal monitor (see most recent posts here, here, here, here and here.)

We had previously discussed allegations that UMDNJ had offered no-bid contracts, at times requiring no work, to the politically connected; had paid for lobbyists and made political contributions, even though UMDNJ is a state institution; and seemed to be run by political bosses rather than health care professionals. (See posts here, and here, with links to previous posts.) A recent development (see post here with links to previous posts) was that UMDNJ apparently gave paid part-time faculty positions to some community cardiologists in exchange for their referrals to the University's cardiac surgery program, but not in exchange for any major academic responsibilities. Another was some amazingly wasteful decisions by UMDNJ managers leading to spending millions of dollars for real-estate that now stands vacant (see post here). Another was the indictment of a powerful NJ politician for getting a no-work job in the system, and the indictment of the former dean of the university's osteopathic medicine school for giving him the job (see post here). Most recently, we found out that UMDNJ had named one of its teaching hospitals for a pharmaceutical company in 2001 (see post here), that the federal monitor accused the dean of one of the UMDNJ campuses of fixing students' grades (see post here), and that the monitor found even more bizarre financial practices at the university (see post here).

All things must pass, so UMDNJ no longer has a federal monitor. Apparently, the publicly released version of the monitor's final report noted a number of positive changes at the university. However, a Newark Star-Ledger story revealed that even this report described contained yet another heretofore unknown problem.

Hundreds of millions in federal grants could be at risk because of lax research oversight at the state's medical university, according to a previously undisclosed portion of the federal monitor's report.

The new material, whose conclusions University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey officials vigorously disputed, found the school had 'no research compliance capability' -- jeopardizing future funding, as well as the health of patients in clinical studies.

At issue is the university's problem-plagued Office of Ethics and Compliance, and UMDNJ's ability to audit research spending and report violations of clinical studies' guidelines to the federal government. The confidential portion of the report found the ethics office, whose director recently resigned and is missing other key personnel, had failed in performing critical oversight of federal research grants.

'UMDNJ admittedly has no research compliance capability at all and none is anticipated,' the monitor stated in the report.

University officials vehemently challenged the assertions.

'We have a significant amount of research compliance. We have over 20 years of history of research compliance at this university,' said Denise V. Rodgers, executive vice president of academic and clinical affairs. 'Do you think people ... would risk their reputation coming to an institution if there was no research compliance? Not a chance.'

U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, who was briefed on the compliance findings, called it a 'serious matter' that seemed to have started long before UMDNJ came under the scrutiny of his office in 2005.

'It's always a problem when you don't have sufficient internal controls on any program. It is even a greater problem for an institution like this,' he said, citing UMDNJ's well-documented troubles with patronage, no-bid contracts and violations of Medicare and Medicaid laws.

In the public version of his final report, the monitor found UMDNJ had significantly improved since the string of scandals that nearly shut down the $1.6 billion university. However, he singled out UMDNJ's ethics and compliance office for criticism. The university's chief ethics officer, Michael R. Clarke, resigned last month after less than 18 months on the job, saying he wanted to return to the private sector. The university is now searching for a successor.

Stern's rebuke of the compliance office was far more harsh in the full report not released to the public. It alerted UMDNJ to failures that investigators only recently began looking into before the deferred prosecution agreement that led to the monitorship termination in December.

All of the monitor's reports released to the public have been edited to omit details of any ongoing investigations, and the final report cited 42 open investigative files based on 'allegations of legal and ethical breaches or conflicts of interest.'

Rodgers attributed the monitor's findings to a 'misunderstanding' over the fact that the university has not yet hired a research compliance officer. She said research at UMDNJ comes under multiple layers of oversight, including an Institutional Review Board; a Human Subjects Protection office; an office of research, as well as an institutional compliance officer and other academic officials.

'This university has over ($115 million) in grants from NIH,' she said. 'You can believe that if they had big concerns that we had no research compliance we would have not been able to get that money?'

I would note parenthetically that the rebuttals by UMDNJ officials seem to be based on logical fallacies, and therefore do not seem very convincing.

The officials first seemed to deliberately interpret the monitor's report in a very concrete way, that it alleged the university literally had not compliance efforts whatsoever. Then, they tried to rebut this straw-man argument by saying that yes, UMDNJ actually has an IRB, a human subjects protection office, etc. In fact, the report did not deny the existence of a compliance structure, it just somewhat sarcastically denied the structure was functional.

The officials then asserted that if the University had no functional non-compliance mechanism, someone ought to have already figured this out, and punished the university for it. This appears to be a version of a logical fallacy called an appeal to consequences of a belief (if X were true, there would be bad consequences. There have not been bad consequences, so X must not be true.) Why the particular problem mentioned in the report, a non-functional research compliance system, should have been more obvious than all the other problems at UMDNJ is not clear.

It's amazing how often the issues discussed on Health Care Renewal inspire health care organizational leaders to creatively use logical fallacies to defend their organizations and prior actions.

Unfortunately, this latest report reinforces the notion that the UMDNJ administration was a poster-child for poor management of an academic health care institution at multiple levels and in multiple spheres. Let's hope that things really are getting better there.

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