Ministers launch urgent inquiry into NHS officials’ second jobs at drugs firms
Government announces “urgent investigation” as Telegraph reveals how scores of officials involved in assessing which drugs are given to patients are also acting as paid consultants to pharmaceutical companies
Ministers have launched an urgent inquiry into the practice of NHS staff being paid by drugs companies, following a Telegraph investigation.
This newspaper has revealed that more than 130 NHS officials involved in assessing which drugs are given to patients are also acting as paid consultants to pharmaceutical companies.
Scores of health service staff, most of whom are managers or other senior officials, are receiving generous fees to sit on “advisory boards” for drugs firms whose products they are responsible for considering on behalf of the NHS.
Alistair Burt, the health minister, said: “These are very serious allegations – an urgent investigation is under way and action will be taken against any NHS staff attempting to influence purchasing decisions in return for payment, gifts or hospitality.
“Our new Sunshine Rule, which comes into force later this year, will require staff to record and submit all dealings with pharmaceutical companies and medical device sectors.”
A spokesman for NHS England said that the behaviour reported by the Telegraph was “unacceptable”.
The NHS added that a proposed new standard contract for staff would introduce a requirement for any gifts and hospitality from drugs firms to be declared.
The move “will make it easier to spot when NHS staff have a conflict of interest” and allow those in breach of the rules to face disciplinary and possibly criminal action.
The proposed new contract comes after this newspaper previously exposed two officials being paid as middle-men to arrange lucrative advisory board meetings attended by NHS staff.
Today’s investigation, involving information from whistle-blowers and hundreds of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, reveals that the practice of officials taking prescribing and “medicines management” roles while acting as consultants to drugs firms is systemic within the NHS.
MPs said the practice appeared “murky” because of the potential conflict of interest if the firms paying officials were also attempting to market their products. Several companies have been flying NHS staff abroad and hosting meetings in luxury hotels
In some cases, senior officials are attending more than 20 paid advisory boards each year and doing other pieces of consultancy work on top of their NHS jobs. Staff involved in assessing drugs for trusts and Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) are referred to by pharmaceutical firms as “payers” because many help control multi-million-pound budgets. A trawl of minutes of meetings, as well as emails obtained under FOI, has shown how several officials have gone on to take part in decisions about adopting the drugs on which they had been paid to advise the manufacturers.
In many cases the payments have not been formally declared, and in others CCGs and trusts have refused to give details of the amounts. The number of officials receiving funds from drugs firms is therefore likely to be higher than the FOI responses suggest.
Meg Hillier, chairman of the public accounts committee, said: “This shows a very worrying relationship between the people who decide which drugs to buy and their relationships with pharmaceutical companies. I am pleased that the Telegraph has shone some light on it. I will be suggesting to my committee that we look at it further.”
The investigation found:
– Individual “payers” are earning up to £1,250 per day advising pharmaceutical firms on selling their products to the NHS, in addition to flights and hotel costs for “meetings” held abroad.
– Three officials at one CCG, Luton, were flown separately to a German spa town for paid advisory board meetings. In December the industry regulator found that the company, Stirling Anglian, had lavished “unacceptable” levels of hospitality on NHS officials.
– Another firm, Hospira, hosted officials in the five-star Esplanade hotel in Zagreb, which has a spa and a casino.
– The industry is spending £30 million a year employing officials and doctors as consultants, and another £10 million sponsoring their attendance at events. In total, 138 officials responsible for advising or making decisions on drugs adopted by the
NHS were found to have been receiving payments from pharmaceutical firms, based on financial links that were formally registered.
In some cases, trusts and CCGs denied their staff had carried out consultancy work, before later admitting they had, when the Telegraph passed specific names to the organisations. The consultancy work ranges from taking part in teleconferences to attending advisory board meetings in locations including Munich, Amsterdam and Paris. Fees for the meetings are often between £700 and £1,000. One firm offered officials £1,250 for a four-hour meeting in Paris, as well as funding flight and hotel costs – equivalent to more than £300 per hour.
Ben Woodhouse, medicines optimisation lead at Bolton CCG, carried out 31 pieces of advisory work for pharmaceutical firms during 2014-15. He said the work, done around his 30-hour NHS week, helped “make best use” of funds as he could provide advice and ensure drugs comply with guidance.
One CCG banned its officials from taking part in advisory boards after being contacted about the outside work of staff. GlaxoSmithKline has quietly stopped using “payers” as consultants.
The NHS fraud watchdog is carrying out a criminal investigation into several officials and trusts at the centre of the Telegraph’s disclosures last year. One senior official, Paul Jerram of Isle of Wight CCG, who insisted he acted in the best interests of the NHS, has been sacked.
The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), is due to create a database showing payments to doctors and officials in cases where the individuals have agreed to “opt in”.
Luton CCG said advisory board work was routinely declared and that it had “rigorous policies and procedures in place around the recommendation of any medicines”.