NQF CEO payments raise conflict of interest concerns

Is the fact that National Quality Forum president and CEO Christine Cassel, M.D, receives hundreds of thousnds of dollars from two medical companies with vested interests in the influential organization a conflict of interest?

Medical ethic experts say yes, according to ProPublica.

Cassel received $235,000 last year as a board member for Premier Inc., a North Carolina company that provides group purchasing and improvement consulting for hospitals, nursing facilities and other providers, according to the article. She was also paid $189,000 as a board member for the Kaiser Foundation Health Plans and Hospitals in 2012. The Quality Forum endorses benchmarks Medicare uses to compensate hospitals on performance.

Although the Quality Forum declined to say how much Cassel made since taking over as CEO last summer, her predecessor made about $525,000, according to ProPublica. The board was aware of Cassel's outside compensation when they hired her, and said she could recuse herself of anything deemed a conflict of interest, the article states.

Ethics experts don't know how Cassel's ties to Kaiser and Premier aren't obvious conflicts, especially because the Quality Forum weighs in on more than 700 quality measures adopted by hospitals and providers across the country, according to the article.

"Conflict of interest is as much an appearance as it is an effect," Sheldon Krimsky, a medical ethics expert at Tufts University, told ProPublica, calling Cassel's conflicts "absolutely egregious."

Although there have been no allegations that Cassel used her position to benefit Kaiser or Premier, Krimsky said she could either resign from outside boards or continue to serve on them without pay to eliminate concerns about monetary influence.

In 2011, the University of Colorado Denver and its teaching hospitals revamped conflict of interest policies after a ProPublica story revealed professors and physicians were taking large payoffs from major drug companies for speaking and consulting, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

To learn more:
- here's the ProPublica article