In a long-overdue step toward health care reform, the massive economic stimulus bill that the Obama administration approved on Tuesday includes $1.1 billion to compare the effectiveness of drugs, medical devices, surgery and other medical procedures. The money will fund not only systematic reviews of published studies but also be used to pay for clinical trials that compare different drugs and treatments. This means that for the first time in decades, clinical trials will be funded by the government, not by drug or medical device companies with a vested interest in the research outcomes. As Robert Pear noted in The New York Times, such funding should help answer important medical questions including whether talk therapy and/or prescription drugs are more effective in treating depression.

This is very good news for doctors and consumers, not to mention those of us who have written about the conflicts and skewing of scientific data that emerge when clinical research is paid for by the makers of drugs and medical devices. Predictably, however, this part of the economic stimulus bill has been roundly attacked by conservative groups that derive some of their funding from, guess what, the drug and medical device industry. In Pear’s Times article, for example, he quotes Betsy McCaughey, whom he identifies as a former lieutenant governor of New York, complaining that the new legislation will lead to rationing. What isn’t mentioned is the fact that McCaughey now works for the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. that gets funding from drug and medical device companies.

Obviously, the drug and medical device industry is not looking forward to independent research that compares expensive new drugs or procedures to older and less expensive treatments, especially if it turns out there is little or no difference between the two. So it comes as no surprise to see that they have trotted out old warhorses like McCaughey, who was a principal critic of the Clinton administration’s failed health-care reform efforts in the early 90s. McCaughey, of course, has a right to say whatever she wants, but don’t the readers of the Times deserve to know who is behind her attacks?

And keep in mind this is just a foretaste of the blitzkrieg that will be unleashed when the Obama administration gets around to tackling health-care reform in earnest.

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