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VA advisor draws GOP fire over consulting fees

A prominent Chicago spine surgeon serving as an advisor in the Department of Veterans Affairs is under scrutiny from congressional Republicans over his relationship with a medical device maker that paid him millions in consulting fees before he joined the government.

Stephen Ondra, former director of spine surgery and professor of neurological surgery at Northwestern University, got more than $3.7 million in royalties and consulting fees from Medtronic in the six months ending in June 2008, about 11 months before he became the VA’s senior policy advisor for health affairs.

Such payments are legal, but Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R- Iowa) says they raise questions about whether Ondra’s advice at the VA is vulnerable to potential conflict of interest.

Grassley’s inquiries are part of a widening debate about the practice of paying doctors for speaking, consulting and other services.

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They also offer a foretaste of what the Obama administration can expect with Republicans taking control of the House and increasing their numbers in the Senate.

Grassley, the ranking minority member of the Senate Finance Committee, has twice written to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki in recent weeks seeking information about ties between Ondra and Medtronic.

In his response to a Sept. 28 letter from Grassley, Shinseki wrote that before taking the VA job, Ondra “correctly and fully disclosed his finances under the rules of the Office of Government Ethics,” had no conflicts regarding Medtronic or any other firm when he assumed his VA duties, “and has none since.”  

In follow-up letter to Shinseki late last month, Grassley asked whether Ondra had “consulted on any matters that may relate to Medtronic” and asked for information to verify the thoroughness of the VA’s search of Ondra’s work e-mail for possible contacts with the company.

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Grassley asked the VA to respond to his second letter by Oct. 28; so far, his office said, no answer has been received.

Grassley also asked Medtronic about its recent contacts with Ondra, 53, who had been recommended for the VA job by the company’s chief executive.  

Critics contend that industry payments can compromise the independence of doctors.

Minneapolis-based Medtronic, a leading supplier of orthopedic and surgical equipment, as well cardiac care and diabetes treatments, had VA contracts totaling $323 million from 2006 through 2008, according to the nonprofit Fedspending.org, which tracks government spending.

The VA annually buys billions of dollars in drugs and devices, and even a small policy change can have huge implications for a supplier’s bottom line, though Grassley has thus far produced no evidence that Ondra sought such changes favoring the company.

According to the VA and Ondra’s attorney, he does not make procurement decisions.

Ondra received royalties from Medtronic in June 2008 for information connected to the development of spinal devices. The payment marked the end of the company’s financial relationship with Ondra because he said he was joining the Obama-Biden transition team, Medtronic spokesman Brian Henry said.

Records show earlier consulting payments of about $327,000 from Medtronic to Ondra beginning in 2006.

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“Any and all payments have been appropriate and at fair market value,” Henry said, adding that since moving to the VA, Ondra “has not done anything on our behalf, nor have we asked him to.”

azajac@latimes.com


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