April 28, 2010, 05:08 PM ET
Senator Grassley Examines Ties Between Drug Companies and Mental-Illness Charity
As part of a broader probe into corporate payments to health charities and other medical groups, Sen. Charles Grassley has asked the National Alliance on Mental Illness to report what it is doing to encourage its state chapters to disclose donations from pharmaceutical companies.
"NAMI chapters are surely accepting funds from pharmaceutical companies, and some of them have accepted substantial sums over the period of our inquiry," Senator Grassley, the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said in a letter sent to the group this week.
The letter includes a chart highlighting the 10 NAMI chapters it said received the most drug-company contributions from January 2005 to October 2009. The California chapter topped the list ($632,000), followed by Ohio ($623,000), and New York ($448,000), according to the letter. Senator Grassley requested information from the chapters last October.
The biggest pharmaceutical contributors were Eli Lilly ($2.2-million), AstraZeneca ($1.6-million), and Bristol-Myers Squibb ($1.3-million), the letter says.
The Iowa senator praised the national mental-illness group for publishing information on its Web site about its own pharmaceutical contributions but asked what it was doing to help state chapters "make their sources of funding transparent" and ensure they spend money properly, and whether it would require state chapters to file conflict-of-interest forms.
Michael J. Fitzpatrick, the organization's executive director, said his group has a strict policy about corporate relationships, for example prohibiting any product endorsements.
"We've shared that with all our state affiliates," and many have incorporated it into their own policies, he said. The national group also provides training to chapters on conflict-of-interest policies and how to comply with federal tax and accounting laws, he said.
However, each chapter is an independent charity and decides on its own whether to disclose who its donors are, just as other kinds of charities do, he said. "Should NAMI in states across the country do something different than other nonprofits?" he said.
Mr. Fitzpatrick said pharmaceutical money generally represents less than 10 percent of state-chapter revenues -- compared with 43 percent of the national group's $12-million budget.
Senator Grassley's request follows a letter he sent in December asking 33 medical groups for details about the financial backing they receive from pharmaceutical, medical-device, and insurance industries, noting that the organizations "have a lot of influence over public policy."
The letter singled out charities like NAMI, the American Cancer Society, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Heart Association, along with a variety of medical-professional associations.
An aide to Senator Grassley said all 33 of the groups have responded to the letter, and the senator is likely to issue a report on his findings this summer.