Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Mainstream Media "Discovers" Conflicts of Interest of Prominent Health Policy Pundit

The main-stream media, in this case the San Francisco Chronicle, just "discovered" an important case of a conflicted health policy pundit,
Uwe Reinhardt, a Princeton economic professor who often writes about health care for the New York Times' Economix blog, earns more than $500,000 a year working for a number of health care companies. He also holds more than $5 million worth of related stock.

Reinhardt's NYT bio does not mention these financial relationships.

As the NYTPicker points out, Reinhardt's various incomes break the New York Times rules, which ban anyone who writes for the paper from having any financial interest 'in a company, enterprise or industry that figures or is likely to figure in coverage that he or she provides, edits, packages or supervises regularly.'

We asked the New York Times for comment. They sent us this email:

'Professor Reinhardt is a leading expert on the economics of health care, and has provided valuable and independent insights in his blog posts. He has mentioned his service on corporate boards in the blog, but we are reviewing how to more fully describe his activities for readers of Economix.'

We also asked Reinhardt for comment. He is working on one for us and we will post it here as soon as possible.

Here's the breakdown of what he owns, according to NYTPicker:

* Reinhardt either earns an income or stock options from the five different private health care companies for which he sits on the board of directors/serves as a trustee.
* He has sat on the board of health care company, Amerigroup, since 2003. This tenure has resulted in Reinhardt's accumulation of 144,558 shares in the company and $226,531 in cash-and-stock compensation. These shares are currently valued around $4.8 million.
* Reinhardt also holds 75,625 shares of Boston Scientific (worth more than $500,000 in value) and earned $213,132 from the company in 2009. He has sat on the board of this medical device manufacturing company since 2005.
* Reinhardt serves as a trustee for H&Q Healthcare Investors and H&Q Life Science Investors. His 2008 income from the companies included $43,000 in income and between $1 and $10,000 worth of securities.
* He also made $2.3 million from the 2007, $5.1 billion sale of Triad Hospitals to Community Health Systems.
It only took four years for this to get into the main-stream media. The reason "discovered" is in quotes is that we have been writing about Reinhardt's conflicts of interests vis a vis his prominent opinions on health policy since 2006 on Health Care Renewal.

As I wrote in a comment on the original NYTPicker post, in 2006, we first wrote about a letter to the editor of the NY Times by Reinhardt dismissing a physician op-ed writer's concerns about what has gone wrong with health care.  Reinhardt's letter failed to disclose the board memberships he held at that time. In 2009, we wrote about how Reinhardt left out some crucial facts in his discussion in the Economix blog of how physicians are paid. That year we also wrote about how Reinhardt defended Ms Karen Ignagni, CEO of America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) in an interview quoted in a Washington Post article.

In neither case above did Reinhardt or the newspaper reveal his conflicts.

Note that Reinhardt is not the only case of a prominent health policy expert with undisclosed conflicts of interest. See this post for some examples we had found in 2006.

In fact, in my humble opinion, the public discourse about health care policy in general, and health care reform in particular has been seriously distorted by various commentators, pundits, and experts who have major conflicts of interest, usually in the form of important financial relationships with large health care organizations.  In many cases, these conflicts are not disclosed.  A related problem is the influence of various non-profit organizations that are heavily funded by those with vested interests, usually in selling particular health care products or services.  Such funding is also rarely disclosed. 

I further submit that this distortion has overwhelmingly been in favor of various aspects of the status quo that have been so profitable for the discussants, and their commercial sponsors.  This distortion has meant that certain important problems, especially those that we discuss on Health Care Renewal, are rarely even mentioned in the mainstream media, in journals on health care and services research and health policy, and in political discussion.  Try, for example, to find any discussion of the impact of ill-informed, self-interested, conflicted or corrupt leadership of prominent health care organizations on costs, access and quality, or on patient outcomes.  It is simply not done to discuss the shortcomings of leadership, maybe because it is this leadership who subsidizes many of the pundits, commentators and experts. 

At a minimum, participants in the health policy discussion, starting with the most prominent, should fully disclose all financial relationships that could constitute conflicts of interest. 

Meanwhile, those listening to the discussion should be extremely skeptical about the opinions expressed. 

1 comment:

james gaulte said...

You (mainly you) and I have been blogging about that COI for a while,I am fairly sure you tipped me off to that. I recall at least once JAMA published his commentary and those associations were not mentioned.