Tuesday, November 04, 2008

It Doesn’t Always Pay to Work at FDA

When FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach testified during his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Health Committee in 2006, he pointed to one area on which he would be dedicating plenty of attention: employee morale.

“Attention to our workforce is my number one priority. It is the most precious asset that FDA has,” von Eschenbach told Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) during the hearing. “Improving and enhancing retention and recruitment opportunities, career development opportunities will also address morale.”

Turns out one detail may have been overlooked. Someone forgot to, um, pay everyone on time.

So, at least, says Senator Chuck Grassley. He claims that FDA has some serious issues with its payroll system. Some employees aren’t getting paid, while other are being overpaid by thousands of dollars. That kind of “sloppy record keeping,” Grassley says, has “shaken confidence in the personnel management system.”

“I am very concerned that payroll problems are adversely affecting employee morale and work performance at the FDA,” Grassley says in an October 28 letter to von Eschenbach and HHS secretary Michael Leavitt. One FDA employee, he says, went to the emergency room in the middle of the night with a sick child, only to discover that FDA had incorrectly terminated him, thus cancelling his health insurance benefits.

“On at least two occasions employees may have been mistakenly overpaid by several thousand dollars,” while in another case, “a brand new employee at the FDA was not paid for several pay periods because the employee ‘fell out of the system,’” the letter says. Grassley is requesting that FDA submit all wage- or benefit-related complaints filed since January 2006.

This isn’t the first time that FDA pay practices have attracted congressional attention. House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak have both complained about FDA awarding excessive bonuses to its highest paid employees, while not making a greater effort to retain employees with a scientific function in the agency.

And low morale has been a persistent problem at FDA. An understaffed agency that is always under a threat of whistleblower actions and intense scrutiny from Congress over issues like drug safety doesn’t always make for a pleasant place to work. And unhappy FDA employees aren’t good for drug sponsors—especially if disgruntled reviewers leave before an NDA is approved.

Indeed, Mikulski’s line of questioning for von Eschenbach in 2006 was prompted by a survey released a month before by the Union of Concerned Scientists that found low morale among many FDA employees due to a perceived lack of support from top agency officials.

Even before his confirmation hearing, von Eschenbach talked about his commitment to turn “FDA into an efficient, modern, performance-based organization” with an emphasis on improving “business” operations. And he later named the agency’s first-ever chief operating officer, John Dyer, to focus on “strengthening the management, business processes, and information technology of the agency.”

But as Janet Woodcock, the director of the Center for Drug Evaluation & Research, put it earlier this year, all FDA employees really want are the basics: an opportunity for professional development, good communication from the top, and—believe it or not—decent parking.

Of course, getting paid would be a plus, too.

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