Lawmakers Exact Whistle-Blower Pledge From FDA Chief

Thursday, March 22nd 2007, 2:59 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Lawmakers exacted repeated pledges from the Food and Drug Administration chief Thursday that he supports the right of agency whistle-blowers to alert Congress to drug-safety and other concerns.

The FDA's treatment of whistle-blowers has long been of concern to members of the House and Senate, stemming in part from allegations the agency has retaliated against employees who spoke out about safety issues with the now-withdrawn painkiller Vioxx, antibiotic Ketek and other drugs.

Thursday's hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's subcommittee on oversight and investigations returned to the topic multiple times. The hearing was the second in as many months on the FDA and drug safety, but the first at which agency commissioner Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach was invited to appear.

``The commissioner's appearance today was preceded a month ago by former FDA staff members who testified that they were forced to flee the FDA because they feared retaliation from their superiors,'' said Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. ``These are good doctors and scientists that exposed bad decisions _ decisions that appear to have needlessly cost American lives,'' he said.

Dingell and others later reminded von Eschenbach that it is illegal to interfere or retaliate against employees who share information with Congress. The FDA chief said he understood that.

``I am adamantly in support of and committed to protecting the legal rights of every single employee within the FDA or any organization that I am associated with,'' von Eschenbach said.

However, during a June 2006 meeting, von Eschenbach told a group of 30 to 40 employees that anyone who went against the ``team'' could end up being ``traded,'' according to accounts by agency whistle-blowers, including Dr. David Ross.

During Thursday's hearing, von Eschenbach apologized to Ross, who now works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, if his comments had been misunderstood. The FDA head then told lawmakers he wanted to foster an environment _ ``if you will, a locker room'' _ where people with diverse points of view and different perspectives could debate, vigorously and aggressively, any problems or issues.

Ross said in February that he left the FDA ``rather than be silenced.''

Von Eschenbach went on to add: ``When people don't choose to participate in that and aren't willing to be a part of that and simply express opinions independent of that, I don't think that's helpful to the process.''

Ross told reporters during a break in Thursday's hearing that that qualifying statement ``sends a very unfortunate message.''