Healthcare-Related Conflicts of Interest Common Among US Lawmakers

By Lisa Rapaport

July 22, 2021

(Reuters Health) - More than one-third of U.S. members of Congress have held investments in the healthcare industry in recent years, including members who serve on healthcare-related committees and subcommittees, a new study suggests.

Researchers examined data on assets reported annually by members of Congress from 2004 to 2014, the most recent year for which bulk financial disclosure data was available at the time the study was done. During the study period, the total value of health industry assets held by members of Congress climbed from $34 million to $64 million.

Increased financial ties to the health industry were seen for both political parties, with the median value of health-related assets climbing from $43,111 to $61,018 among Democrats and from $43,986 to $70,196 among Republicans, the analysis also found. Overall, health-related assets consistently accounted for less than 4% of lawmakers' total financial holdings.

Although members of health-related committees and subcommittees in the Senate and House were no more or less likely to have health industry assets than other lawmakers, several members of these committees had holdings much higher than the median for all lawmakers, the study team notes in PLoS ONE.

"If you're cynical about Congress, it may be reassuring to see that members of health care-focused committees don't hold more health-related assets than their colleagues - it suggests that these members aren't going out of their way to load up on assets directly affected by their committee work," said lead study author Matthew McCoy, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

"But I think we should expect more from members of Congress," McCoy said by email. "We should expect that they divest from assets in industries directly affected by their committee work, and we don't see any evidence of that when we look at the health domain."

The annual median value of health-related assets held by members of the health subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee climbed as high as $320,665, in 2010, for example. The median value of health-related assets held by members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee reached as high as $414,429, in 2014.

One limitation of the study is that researchers lacked data on financial holdings of members of Congress after 2014, the authors note. The analysis was also limited to health-specific industries such as biotechnology, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, and insurance without examining financial assets related to other industries that can impact public health.

Still, the results offer fresh evidence of a persistent potential conflict of interest among members of Congress that may negatively impact policy decisions related to health care, said Dr. Vinay Prasad, an associate professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco who wasn't involved in the study.

"For years health policy analysts have noted these problems, and urged the Congress to act," Dr. Prasad said by email. "Repeatedly, Congress fails to implement any measures to ensure that health care spending is no longer out of control, or to ensure that the health care we get is worth the money we spend."

SOURCE: PLoS ONE, online July 21, 2021.