UW emails suggest drug companies paying for private access to FDA meetings

SEATTLE -- KOMO 4 News has obtained internal emails to and from a University of Washington researcher that suggest prescription drug companies are buying access to private meetings with the Food and Drug Administration -- the same agency that regulates them.

Pain medicine is a multi-billion dollar a year industry and growing, with 100 million Americans suffering from chronic pain, according to the research.

The FDA sets policy for those drug makers, but internal emails suggest giant pharmaceutical companies are buying a seat at the table with their policy overlords for thousands of dollars.

"There's really nothing wrong with having the drug makers in these meetings," said UW Pain Expert Robert Turk.

Turk wrote some of the emails with colleagues planning a series of scientific workshops to advise the FDA on key changes to pain medicine testing. Turk's colleague wrote to him in 2003 when the years-long series of meetings began, "20k is small change, and they can justify it easily if they want to be at the table... Everybody has been very happy with [the meetings] and they are getting a huge amount for very little money (impact on FDA thinking, exposure to FDA thinking, exposure to academic opinion leaders and their expertise, journal article authorship, etc.) and they know it... Do they really expect it to be any less than 20k per meeting for all this?"

I asked Turk if it was a good idea for the drug makers to be paying for these meetings and other things?

"Somebody's gonna have to pay for it," Turk said. "So we have a choice: We could have the FDA pay for it -- and they don't have the money. We could have (National Institutes of Health) pay for it but they don't fund this kind of thing. Or who?"

Late Monday, the FDA told KOMO News that the people involved in the series of meetings do not comprise one of the more well-known FDA advisory panels. A more independent initiative, says the FDA, and they say they're not aware of any improprieties.

Turk says a full audit is now under way at another university that administers those special advisory meetings for the FDA.