ProPublica Hides Own Conflicts While Challenging Others

  • by: Robert Goldberg |
  • 02/24/2017

ProPublica, although calling itself "journalism in the public interest,” remains silent about its own funding and conflicts of interest while it brazenly challenges others. 

A recent article, " Big Pharma Quietly Enlists Leading Professors to Justify $1,000-a-Day Drugs," questions the credibility of respected academic experts who explain and defend the high cost of developing new treatments and cures, simply because they get funding from the pharmaceutical industry. 

Yet, ProPublica receives funding from Arnold Foundation, dedicated to attacking drug pricing, drug spending and by extension the pharmaceutical industry.

Since 2013 ProPublica has received $4 million from the Arnold Foundation.  The support is part of nearly $20 million in multiyear grants to organizations that are being paid by the foundation to develop new policies to attack drug prices in a way that will reduce the development of new treatments and cures.  

In addition, the foundation is funding news outlets like ProPublica to report on the organizations it is funding, and to support a group called Patients for Affordable Drugs who advocate for policies the other Arnold entities are creating and publicizing.  So ProPublica is part of what the foundation calls a 'portfolio of investments' in attacking drug pricing and drug spending. That's journalism in ProPublica's financial interest, not in the public interest.

The piece claims that the scholars (who have a firm called Precision Health Economics of PHE) enlisted by drug companies to defend prices didn’t regularly disclose funding, In fact, the economists who  such as Tom Philipson, Dana Goldman and Darius Lakdawalla have been conducting such research for nearly 20 years and they have been disclosing their funding when required or relevant.  In any event their relationship with companies was well known to everyone in the field.  

Ironically, ProPublica alleges monkey business because of PHE’s failure to disclose in an article But Propublica has also has conflicts which,unlike PSE, it doesn’t disclose at all.

That’s not just being “quietly enlisted: That’s keeping quiet to avoid being criticized for hypocrisy. 

Indeed, Annie Waldman, the author of the article, interviewed several individuals and discusses alternative value frameworks who disagree with the PHE methodology and belittle their assertions about prices reflecting values.   

These sources are funded by the Arnold Foundation as well. 

To discredit the claim that new drugs cost a lot to develop Waldman cites Dr. Aaron Kesselheim who states: “There is substantial evidence that the sources of transformative drug innovation arise from publicly funded research in government and academic labs.” Kesselheim is “an associate professor at Harvard Medical School whose research looks at the cost of pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceutical pricing, he says, is primarily based on what the market can bear.”

And Kesselheim also gets funding from the Arnold Foundation.  

Waldman also discusses the role of ICER in setting drug prices based upon its opinion of value.  She describes ICER as an organization vigorously attacking US drug prices. Waldman states that: “Some patient groups have contended that ICER emphasizes cost savings because it receives funding from health insurers. However, foundations are ICER’s biggest source of funding, and it is also supported by the pharmaceutical industry and government grants. “

ICER does NOT get money from the drug industry. Waldman fails to mention funding from California Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation or that ICER receives most of its funding -- $4.6 million from the unmentioned Arnold Foundation.

It is perfectly acceptable to criticize PHE approach on substance.  But as a colleague of mine observed: “foundation money is no different than pharma money if the purpose is the same: to support advocacy-driven research.” I applaud the Arnold Foundation for supporting groups that advance its drug pricing agenda and I am grateful to receive funding to advance other ideas about how to make medical innovation accessible and affordable. 

However, if you are going to make funding sources an issue, it should apply to thee and me.   And more to the point, if you are a media outlet receiving money from an organization that also funds the groups you cite in your article and use to research your piece, you should at least tell the public that.   That’s not just nondisclosure.  That’s misleading.   It certainly isn’t journalism.  

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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