What the FDA Will Pay to Keep its Policy Officials

August 2, 2007

There was a good op-ed in yesterday’s Boston Globe by Susan Wood, former assistant commissioner for women’s health at the FDA, and David Michaels, former assistant secretary of energy for environment, safety, and health, that urged Congress to strengthen the FDA “through a new focus on safety, scientific transparency, and adequate funding.” (OBOS’ own Judy Norsigian has also been arguing on the op-ed pages for more reform that will lead to better consumer protection against potentially dangerous drugs and medical devices.).

This Washington Post front-page story today demonstrates that the FDA needs more reform than we thought. John Solomon and Marc Kaufman write:

Before paying $48,823 in cash bonuses to its chief of regulatory affairs in 2005, the Food and Drug Administration asked her to sign a simple declaration: “If I am unable to receive a retention allowance, I am likely to leave the federal government for a higher paying position in the private sector,” wrote Margaret O’K. Glavin.

Glavin’s statement did not detail a specific job offer, but that did not impede the payment. Over the past 4 1/2 years, she has collected more than $178,000 in cash bonuses — on top of her $159,840 annual salary.

FDA officials justified Glavin’s bonuses by saying her pay should be close to the salaries of those employed by companies she regulates, namely Washington lobbyists. The private-sector comparison has prompted large cash bonuses for top agency officials to quadruple since 2002, to $13.6 million in 2005, according to FDA officials and salary information provided to Congress.

The bonuses were paid during a rough patch at the FDA, encompassing a shortage of flu vaccine and embarrassing recalls of the pain-relieving drug Vioxx and malfunctioning heart defibrillators. Throughout, the agency repeatedly insisted that it lacked the resources to conduct adequate food and drug inspections.

The payments, which have attracted bipartisan criticism from lawmakers, offer an unusually detailed look at how the administration has implemented a cash bonus program that Congress expanded in 2004 to attract and retain talented federal employees.

Lawmakers say that at the FDA, many of the bonuses went to the highest-paid officials rather than the scientists, inspectors and doctors most at risk of jumping to the private sector. To critics, the payments bore little relationship to the agency’s performance and reputation or to the likelihood that someone might depart. Agency officials disagree and call the program a success.

It’s understandable that the FDA would want to retain its top talent, but the money doesn’t seem to be heading where it should:

Glavin, an English major who rose through the ranks of the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service before joining the FDA in 2003 as assistant commissioner for counterterrorism policy, collected $44,614 in bonuses in 2006 alone, according to the records. That accounts for 11.1 percent of all the cash bonuses exceeding $5,000 that were awarded to her entire 3,500-employee Office of Regulatory Affairs.

In contrast, the FDA investigator who won the agency’s top national award last year received a much smaller bonus. “I was nominated for a cash award for $2,500, but after taxes I got just $1,400,” said Rebecca Parrilla, a chemical engineer who said she has worked at the FDA for more than eight years and was unaware how much her bosses in Washington were collecting in bonuses.

Glad to know that when the Office of Women’s Health stood to lose more than a quarter of its operating budget earlier this year, some folks got bonus money just for signing a perfunctory document noting they could make more money outside government. Must be nice. If only that worked for employees who really needed — or deserved — the money.