When Merck and Schering-Plough released data from a clinical trial of cholesterol medication Vytorin showing that it worked no better than a much cheaper generic, the companies were widely accused in the media of deliberately delaying the release of the findings for 20 months in order to boost profits—prompting the U.S. Senate Finance Committee to investigate. The result: the SFC has widened its inquiry into pharmaceutical industry funding, including grants for medical society meetings, to see if these monies are being used as a marketing vehicle.

In January, Senator Charles E. Grassley, [R-Iowa] ranking member, SFC, sent letters to the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology probing their relationships with pharmaceutical companies, including meeting support and program grants. Grassley also sent letters to Merck and Schering-Plough, asking for information concerning payments made to the two medical societies, including funding for continuing medical education.

This latest probe comes 10 months after the SFC issued a report on CME, which concluded that some CME activities were, in fact, marketing vehicles for pharmaceutical companies. “Senator [Max] Baucus [D-Mont.] and I released a committee report last April on continuing medical education. We found that there are risks of kickbacks, veiled advertising of drugs, efforts to bias clinical protocols, and off-label promotion. We continue to monitor this issue, and I’m also taking a hard look at medical associations to make sure they stay independent and free of industry influence,” said Grassley in a written statement to Medical Meetings.

The inquiry doesn’t seem to be generating great concern in the CME community or in the two groups targeted. The Alliance for CME posted a link to the letters and the press release on its Web site, along with this comment: “The Alliance does not believe that this investigation is directly targeting CME activity at this time.” The American Heart Association agreed. “The requests for information are not related to CME activities in particular and we have no reason to think that there is an issue with our CME activities, which adhere to the Accreditation Council for CME’s Standards for Commercial Support,” said Daniel W. Jones, MD, president, American Heart Association, Dallas, in a written statement to Medical Meetings.

The American College of Cardiology also responded that it has strong policies in place regarding commercial support. “We are constantly evaluating these policies in order to further minimize any appearance of industry influence,” said Joseph S. Green, PhD, vice president, professional development; and chief learning officer, American College of Cardiology, Washington, D.C.