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Pharma Ties to AHA Questioned


September 16, 2015.

With substantial bills for new cholesterol lowering therapies looming, criticism is coming from all angles. In this case, UNITE HERE, a labor union representing 270,000 workers people across Canada and the US is scrutinizing pharma’s connections to the influential and highly visible American Heart Association (AHA).
The group published a report on August 21, which can be found here, and it hopes that participants of AHA fund and awareness raising walks will think twice about where their sneakers (and dollars) are marching this fall.
A press release accompanying the report stated, “the AHA, its leadership, and authors of its guidelines accept large contributions from the pharmaceutical industry” and calls for steps to minimize industry’s influence. The release concludes, “the line between charity and business agendas can become blurred when the AHA and its leadership receive substantial payments from pharma and food corporations.”
The report titled Is The American Heart Association For Sale, singles out contributions in the 2013-14 fiscal year including Covidien ($1,150,000), Daiichi Sankyo ($1,527,500), and Pfizer ($3,280,875) to the AHA as well as payments from life science companies to various individuals on the organization’s board and research committee.
In response to request for comment, an AHA representative wrote:
“We take the issue of transparency in our corporate relationships very seriously. Much of the data in this report came from the AHA website where, for a number of years, we have published detailed financial information including the amount of support we receive from individual pharmaceutical and medical device companies.  The information we publish also provides important context that the report fails to mention, including these companies’ support as a percentage of AHA total revenue (2.1% in 2013-14) and the safeguards we have in place to preserve the independence of AHA from influence by any corporate sponsor.”
Clearly, it’s necessary to keep an eye on dollars and influence, especially when therapeutic regimens and billion dollar drug launches are at stake.
But vague accusations and dollar amounts are just that. Claims of influence bought or anything more sinister or criminal are far from substantiated by the report.
Don’t forget, unless UNITE HERE really did unearth some under the table dealings, these dollar amounts aren’t secret. They are made public by the doctors/researchers, their institutions, drug manufacturers, and the AHA (as they note). Phrasing like that in organization’s press release stating the report has “uncovered” the truth about AHA and pharma, makes for salacious headlines, but the article’s title and thesis claiming impropriety and an AHA for sale carries little water.
This is not to say that improper payments and unethical behavior don’t happen, they do. UNITE HERE can be commended for reminding us that these groups are linked by their passion for raising awareness, advancing treatments, scientific research as well as dollars. But at a time when patient groups, industry, regulators and others all are seeking greater connection and collaboration, this sure is one way to drive a wedge.
Not to say that payments and paid consultants are the only way to bring these groups into the same room, but paying physicians and researchers for their time and efforts on the up and up is certainly a key element of the industry.
The AHA also noted that its volunteers and staff have a robust Conflict of Interest Policy (available online), that requires disclosure of any conflicts and abstention from decision-making related to the conflict to ensure that guidelines  and recommendations are grounded in the full body of relevant science. The AHA also has consistently met the high standards of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance (WGA), the spokesperson noted.
Pricing a wedge?
Certainly the price of drugs can be another wedge splitting these groups. And given current attitudes concerning high cost therapeutics, the prerogative of some groups is to take an anti-pharma industry stance, no matter what.
But giving reports like this too much credence and taking its recommendations on how patient groups, physicians and industry should interact, and it wouldn’t be long before no one can even sit at the same table, let alone exchange funding,  services or cutting edge scientific ideas, without an overly skeptical eye.
So, for claims about pharma payments to the AHA, should pharma not be encouraged to interact and bolster patient organizations? Would this not fall into the realm of pharma seeking to be patient-centric?
And, for claims about payments to board members and researchers, these are top key opinion leaders on the cutting edge of medical science. Should they and financially-backed pharma companies not be encouraged to interact to strive for better therapies with the benefit of their research and patients in minds? Unless UNITE HERE has specific claims of chicanery, these are professionals with integrity. Shouldn’t we praise their work them rather than broadly besmirching their names?

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