Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Chiropractors, CIRM and Its Legislative Posture

The 120 men and women who sit in the California Legislature generally tend to think they have prime responsibility for writing the laws that govern the state. And they often get edgy when state agencies, even ones that have special constitutional status, seem to be straying from the governmental straight and narrow.

Such was the case recently with the California's chiropractic board, which is enshrined in the State Constitution. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's appointees to the board became carried away in what a deputy attorney general described as a fit of "lawlessness." Now the board faces a serious legislative investigation that could include elimination of its $3 million budget.

While this is something of a minor tempest – although not for chiropractors -- the chiropractic board shares several things in common with California's much heftier, $3 billion stem cell agency. Both are written into the State Constitution. Both were created by initiative. Both have issues involving conflicts of interest. And both function in near obscurity except when they hand out buckets of money – in the case of the stem cell agency – or when a scandal erupts, as in the case of chiropractic board.

Obviously major differences exist between the two boards, including the quality of the appointees. But the case of the chiropractors illustrates how quickly matters can go awry in an insular agency and how quickly the legislature may move to step in. The case will also probably show how quickly the governor can put distance between himself and what The Sacramento Bee called a "laughingstock."

Last Sunday we discussed the sometimes acrimonious relationship between CIRM and the California legislature, particularly in the light of bipartisan legislation by the chair of the Senate Health Committee, Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica. Her measure would inject the legislature into the difficult and touchy matter of how the stem cell agency decides to share the potentially enormous wealth from cures developed with state-funded research. After a shaky start with lawmakers, CIRM has moved to improve its legislative relations and keep lawmakers well informed.

Our piece, which appeared as an op-ed in The Sacramento Bee, was necessarily limited because of space. But we wanted to share more that we heard from CIRM and two longtime observers of the agency, who also have been critical of its performance from time to time and sometimes even more often. What follows are virtually verbatim comments.

First, from Dale Carlson, chief communications officer for the stem cell agency:
"We have an active government affairs program underway in Sacramento focused on legislators and statewide office holders, as well as their respective staff members. We want to keep them apprised of our efforts and progress, the status of key regulatory and funding initiatives, and the challenges we are confronting in pursuit of our mandate and obligations.

"The objective is to ensure that key decision-makers have current, accurate, and reliable information about CIRM's activities, the field of stem cell research, and related issues. We seem to receive reports of new scientific developments every week, and with more states committing funding to the field each year, it's likely that pace will accelerate. It's a challenge for us to stay abreast of the science, federal policy, and other states' emerging policies, all of which have an effect on our scientific project.

"We're very proud of the work we're doing, the processes we follow to engage the public in the development of policies and regulations that are required by the law, and the willingness we've demonstrated to adopt and apply good ideas from variety of sources. We want to be recognized as a credible source of information on all things stem cell, regardless of whether the question is directly related to CIRM's activities.

"Our legislative affairs program includes one-on-one meetings and group briefings. (Early in February), for example, ICOC Vice Chair Ed Penhoet and several CIRM staff held a session with staff from the Speaker's office and the Senate Health Committee and others, to review our IP policies for non-profits and for-profits. Both have been the subject of great interest and discussion in Sacramento (as well as throughout the state and in Washington, D.C.), with legislators offering many suggestions for how those policies might be crafted and strengthened. Our presentation described the progress we've made to date - emphasizing that the regulatory process is still moving forward and unlikely to be completed for several months - as well as a review of the issues we're struggling to address. "(Later in February), (CIRM President) Zach Hall, Arlene Chiu, and Mary Maxon (Chiu and Maxon are CIRM staff) conducted a broader briefing on the basics of stem cells, the progress we've made in our first two years, including on the IP policies, and the grants approved by the ICOC.

"Kirk Kleinschmidt, our Director of Legislation and Research Policy, has day-to-day responsibility for the effort. In addition to arranging these group sessions, he's regularly in the capital meeting with individual members. Gene Erbin from Nielsen Merksamer is on retainer to support the effort. Per the provisions of Proposition 71, (Stem Cell Chairman) Bob Klein oversees the legislative affairs program in consultation with the Legislative Subcommittee and the ICOC. He's in regular contact with federal and the statewide office holders as well as the legislative
Carlson also said that Klein, Penhoet, Kleinschmidt and Patricia Olson, who led development of the CIRM strategic plan, had a 90-minute meeting with Kuehl last Wednesday.

Carlson said it was a "detailed discussion of our IP policies, the drug/therapy development process and the extensive public process we've followed."
"This is the kind of relationship we want with the legislature. Respectful and substantive. We want them to be assured that we're going about our responsiblities thoughtfully and carefully, and that we welcome good ideas and the opportunity to discuss our efforts."
Carlson said the CIRM board will meet in Sacramento April 10 and expects to finish its meeting in time for board members to visit with legislators in the afternoon.

Jesse Reynolds, project director on biotechnology accountability for the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, has followed CIRM closely during the last two years as well as the Prop. 71 campaign.

Here is what he had to say in response to our query:
"Prop. 71 is a deeply flawed set of laws, with numerous exemptions to the norms of transparency, oversight and accountability....

"Hopefully, the leadership of the CIRM won't be as hostile to much-needed reform as it was during previous attempts. Then, the state's 'stem cell czar,' Robert Klein took the unprecedented step of hiring a lobbyist with taxpayer funds. What's more, while serving as chair of the CIRM's governing board, he simultaneously headed up a private lobbying organization, which advocates for more funding and less oversight of stem cell research. These actions are not appropriate for the head of a state agency.

"Klein's statements that 'the Legislature is not needed' and that then-Senator Ortiz was 'an ongoing threat' are not only wrong, but highlight his cavalier attitude in his role as a public servant. As the people's elected representatives, the Legislature certainly has a critical role in overseeing a multi-billion dollar program. As a senator, Ortiz did more for stem cell research and Proposition 71 than any other elected official."
John M. Simpson, stem cell project director for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumers Rights in Santa Monica, Ca., is another longtime follower of CIRM matters. He said,
"Key to any IP policy are provisions that ensure affordable access for all Californians to any cures or treatments resulting from stem cell research they funded. The ICOC originally envisioned meeting that goal by requiring treatments purchased with public funds to be sold at the federal Medicaid price and that there be a plan in place that would provide access to the treatments for uninsured people.

"In drawing up the actual regulatory language to implement those policies, the ICOC has softened those proposals.....

"I think Kuehl's bill would increase payback to the state, but doesn't do enough to ensure affordable access for all Californians. There should be a provision that if there are unreasonable prices the attorney general can intervene. I cite Genentech's Avastin as an example of what cannot be allowed. The drug was developed with $44.6 million in public funds from the National Cancer Institute yet Genentech charges $100,000 a year for it.

"I'd also like to see action on governance and accountability issues. I don't know what Sen. Kuehl's plans are in this regard. Members of the various working groups should be required to file public disclosures of their interests. All applicants and their institutions should be identified, not just recipients. Finally the ICOC is too large. It should be trimmed from the 29 members who now have seats.

"Another thought: ICOC members themselves have expressed concerns about some provisions of Prop 71. It might be useful for both CIRM and the legislature to attempt to identify such areas and agree on making those changes."
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