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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 5/18/15

Obama's Health Care Corporate Friendly Trade Agreements could have major effects on patients' and the public's health

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According to his official biography at the site of the Biotechnology Industry Associaiton, Joseph Damond 'was chief negotiator of the historic U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade agreement' during his 12 years at USTR. He then spent five years at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America before moving to BIO. Justin McCarthy went through the revolving door in the other direction. According to a USTR press release, McCarthy was responsible for intellectual property issues at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer from 2003 to 2005 before he was hired at USTR. He now works at a lobbying firm.

Lee also suggested that the US Trade Representative has been culturally captured by industry through its use of advisory panels made up of industry members, but not, for example, clinicians, public health advocates, or interested members of the public.

The agency has established 16 industry trade advisory committees to provide advice about the complex issues USTR deals with in the course of its negotiations. As the name suggests, the ITACs are designed to gather feedback from industry groups. There are no public interest groups, academics, or other non-industry experts on ITAC 15, which focuses on "intellectual property" issues.

And that matters because groups with ITAC seats have access to confidential information about the U.S. negotiating position that isn't available to the public. Sherwin Siy, an attorney at the advocacy organization Public Knowledge, has had multiple meetings with USTR representatives during the course of the TPP negotiations. But he says it was difficult to give USTR meaningful feedback because he didn't know what positions U.S. negotiators were advocating.

'They're willing to sit in a room with us and listen to our objections and our issues and be very polite,' Siy says. But 'whether or not that actually means anything is at best a black box.'

When USTR wants technical advice on transposing U.S. law into international agreements, it naturally turns to the industry representatives on the ITACs. And it stands to reason that the advice the agency receives in response would be a bit one-sided. Where U.S. law is ambiguous, industry groups naturally gravitate toward interpretations of U.S. law that favor their employers' interests. And because public interest groups and independent experts aren't allowed to see proposed language (aside from occasional leaks), the agency may not even realize that it is exporting a warped interpretation of U.S. law.

The pro-industry cultural bias has caused consternation among even well-known libertarians, as Lee noted,

'USTR sees itself as an advocate for U.S. exporter interests,' says Bill Watson, a trade expert at the Cato Institute. 'It's trying to negotiate market access for particular U.S. industries that ask for it. That bias leads USTR to think that because U.S. companies want more IP protection abroad, it's in their interest to negotiate that.'

So it seems quite clear that the US agency that negotiates the new international trade agreements may be staffed by people who came from affected industries, including pharmaceutical, device and biotechnology companies, and privileges advice from such companies. Thus the agency appears to suffer from conflicts of interest due to the revolving door, and from regulatory capture induced by its bias in favor of advice from industry over that from clinicians, public health advocates, or interested members of the public. This suggests why it appears that this government agency has actively been promoting trade agreements that favor industry interests over patients' and the public's health.

It may be that top US executive branch officials, all the way up to the President of the US, have been very ill-served by relying on an agency subject to such conflicts of interest and regulatory capture.


We have frequently written about the revolving door phenomeno n, and its effect on government agencies and officials who regulate and control many aspects of health care. Recently, we wrote about how the revolving door risks corruption, and can lead to regulatory, and even state capture.

In 2011, we even wrote about how the revolving door may affect US trade negotiations, and thus important aspects of aspects of global health care.

Government officials affiliated with all major political parties have been known to transit the revolving door. The recent cases we have documented have tended to be more about the party that currently controls the executive branch, of course. But now, we seem to have documented how the revolving door has lead to a supposedly liberal president proposing trade agreements that seemed heavily biased towards corporate rather than popular interests, and thus suffered an embarrassing defeat at the hands of his party compatriots in the legislature. The president seems to have been particularly ill-served by employees of the executive branch whose previous or potential revolving door transits have made them sing the tunes of industry rather than of the people they are supposed to be serving. This suggests that in the long run, nobody but the participants in the revolving door ultimately benefits from their rotary transitions.

Instead, as we have said many times before, the constant interchange of health care insiders among government, large health care corporations, and the lobbying and legal firms which represent them certainly suggests that health care, like many other sectors, seems to be run by an amorphous group of insiders who owe allegiance neither to government nor industry.

However, those who work in government are supposed to be working for the people, and those who work on health care within government are supposed to be working for patients' and the public health. If they are constantly looking over their shoulders at potential private employers who might offer big checks, who indeed are they working for?

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Clinical Associate Professor of Medicine at Brown University, co-founder Health Care Renewal, and President of FIRM - the Foundation for Integrity and Responsibility in Medicine, a not-for-profit organization (NGO) designed to raise (more...)

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