News & Events

MGH parent curbs fees to staff from drug makers

By Liz Kowalczyk, Globe Staff  |  January 3, 2010

High-ranking physicians and executives at Partners HealthCare, which includes Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s hospitals, can no longer receive stock or unlimited fees for sitting on the boards of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, under new rules that took effect Friday.

Partners estimates that the policy affects roughly 25 vice presidents, clinical department heads, and other top executives who are directors for some of the nation’s leading drug companies. The rules limit their pay to $500 an hour, or $5,000 for a typical 10-hour day attending a board meeting; the rules ban executives and high-level physicians outright from taking company stock as compensation.

The new limits at Partners underscore just how intertwined academic medical centers and pharmaceutical companies have become. They are part of a national push by state regulators, Congress, and hospitals themselves to make these relationships more transparent, and to counter industry’s influence over the drugs and treatments doctors prescribe.

Mass. General and Harvard Medical School, with which the hospital is affiliated, are among dozens of institutions and organizations nationally that have come under scrutiny from congressional investigators over their relationships with pharmaceutical companies.

Partners announced a strict new conflict-of-interest policy last spring, and the organization has been implementing it in stages. The limits on directors’ compensation is the latest component of the policy to take effect.

The hospital network’s new conflict-of-interest policy also bans doctors from traveling the country as paid members of drug company “speaker’s bureaus.’’

Overall, the changes bring the organization in line with other majorUS teaching hospitals that have adopted tougher standards. But Partners’s specific policy limiting compensation for top physicians and executives who sit on company boards probably goes further than any other academic medical centers, Partners executives said.

Christopher Clark, director of Partners Office for Interactions with Industry, said when a hospital executive also works as a company director, it creates special concerns about his or her allegiances. As a director, the executive is responsible for helping the company achieve financial success, but at the same time he or she may be making decisions about whether or not to use the company’s drugs to treat patients.

Partners discussed prohibiting such relationships, Clark said, but decided not to do so, despite calls for an outright ban from drug industry critics.

“These relationships also have significant benefits,’’ he said. “They give us some insight into how the companies work and how they are doing, and making sure the companies are aware of the academic perspective.’’

Dr. Dennis Ausiello, Partners chief scientific officer and also a member of the Pfizer board and cochairman of its science and technology committee, was paid more than $220,000 by the company last year. Ausiello, also chief of medicine since 1996 at Mass. General, was named a director of Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, in 2006. Since then, he has received more than $700,000, he said.

Ausiello said yesterday that more than half of those payments were in stock, which he cannot access until he retires from the board. He defended his role and said he will continue both as a Partners executive and a Pfizer board member under the new limits.

He said every drug company has one or two physicians on its board. As cochair of the science and technology committee, he reviews drugs Pfizer is considering developing and helps the company evaluate whether they could help patients.

Ausiello said he does not know any doctors who sit on company boards for monetary gain.

“These rules are largely about perception,’’ he said.