U of M surgeon's ties to Medtronic under scrutiny

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Medtronic headquarters
Medtronic is headquartered in the Twin Cities.
MPR Photo/Tom Crann

A University of Minnesota spine surgeon is now part of a larger look into the financial relationship between doctors and private medical companies.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is asking the U of M for information on Dr. David Polly, a surgeon who was paid more than $1 million in consulting fees by medical device maker Medtronic, which is based in Fridley.

Grassley's letter asks how the university monitors potential conflicts of interest for medical school doctors who receive outside consulting payments. He also notes that Polly went before Congress in 2006 and testified about a program that had ties to Medtronic, but Polly didn't disclose his own ties to Medtronic.

Medtronic spokesman Steve Cragle says Polly remains on the company's payroll, but the company is investigating.

"We were aware that Dr. Polly provided testimony, and reimbursed him for his prep time and travel. But to the best of our knowledge, we did not know that he did not disclose his relationship to the company, and believe he should have done so," Cragle said.

University officials say they are reviewing the matter and plan to respond to Grassley's request.

Grassley has made a number of inquiries to universities across the country. In June, he asked 23 medical schools for information about their conflict of interest policies.

"There's a lot of skepticism about financial relationships between doctors and drug companies," Grassley said in a June 24 statement. "Disclosure of those ties would help to build confidence that there's nothing to hide. Requiring disclosure is a common-sense reform based on the public dollars and public trust at stake in medical training, medical research and the practice of medicine."

Grassley's requests are part of his effort to pass legislation he's co-sponsoring called the Physician Payments Sunshine Act, which would require drug, medical device, and biologics companies to report publicly any payments they make to doctors.

Grassley has also released examples that he says showcase universities that aren't managing their own conflict policies. They include three professors at Harvard who didn't report outside income while heading up several grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Another example is a University of Wisconsin doctor who only reported getting "more than $20,000" from a company every year for five years, when the actual amount was around $19 million.

Grassley has asked the University of Minnesota to respond to his request for information about Dr. Polly by Aug. 7. The university says it's working to meet that timeline.

The request also comes as the University of Minnesota is already in the middle of revising its conflict of interest policy. Mark Rotenberg, the university's general counsel, told MPR News that a draft is still being revised, but there's no specific date for having the new policy in place.

Polly didn't respond to an MPR request for an interview, but he told the New York Times this week that he did nothing wrong in relation to his appearance before the Senate committee.

"If I billed Medtronic for services that were inappropriate, I would be happy to refund that money," he told the Times. "My relationship with the company has always been on the up-and-up."

The matter also speaks to the complexity of the issue, according to Eric Meslin, director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics.

"I don't know that it's fair to leap to the conclusion that the entire system of research, including review and conflict of interest issues, is so horribly damaged that it has to be torn down and built up again. We've got a pretty good system in place," Meslin said.

Meslin adds that because taxpayer money funds such a large share of medical research in the U.S., even the perception that doctors are trying to hide something could lead to a call from the public for cuts to such funding.

The stimulus bill that became law this year provides $10 billion for research grants, on top of nearly $24 billion that's already distributed by the National Institutes of Health each year.

The University of Minnesota, meanwhile, indicated on Wednesday that it expects to receive more requests for information.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised if there are further requests for information," said Mark Rotenberg, the university's general counsel. "This is a very important area. And we're acutely aware that there's national interest in providing assurances that research conducted at the university is free from unmanaged conflicts of interest."

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