Political Party Time

Grassley feted by alternative med lobbyist

A self-proclaimed lobbyist for an alternative health organization--who left a prominent conservative group more than a decade ago under a cloud of financial mismanagement--is hosting a fundraiser next week for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA). Grassley, who recently earned fame for his tweets on health care, has a reputation as a strong crusader for drug safety. But he has also has championed policies favoring the alternative health industry, which some consumer critics charge is not adequately regulated by the federal government.

Sam Brunelli, who works for the Whitaker Health Freedom Foundation, the political arm of the Freedom of Health Foundation, and his wife, Robin Read, are feting Grassley at a breakfast on June 24 at the Capitol Hill Club. The Foundation, headed by Dr. Julian Whitaker of dietary supplement fame, states it opposes the government and the pharmaceutical industry whenever they "suppress the truth about alternative medical therapies and/or nutritional supplementation." Read is president and CEO of the Foundation for Women Legislators, which includes Dr. Whitaker on its board. The Freedom of Health Foundation did not return a call inquiring about the event.

Brunelli is introduced as a lobbyist on the organization's Web site, here; however there are no official records of his work at least as a federal lobbyist here, according to lobbyist disclosure reports. The most recent available tax forms filed by the Whitaker Health Freedom Foundation, the political arm, claim a budget of just $34,000 and make no mention of payments to staff. (See the organization's 1998 990 form here.)

Brunelli formerly served as executive director of the conservative group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which works to advance conservative state legislators. He left the group in 1995 over charges of mismanagement and personal enrichment, according to a 1995 National Journal report.

Grassley goes to bat for alternative health care therapies

Grassley has earned a reputation as an active watchdog of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), pushing to strengthen the agency's regulation of pharmaceutical drugs and medical devices and arguing for tough conflict-of-interest laws for researchers. Indeed he won an award this year from the National Research Center for Women & Families because "his willingness to challenge the FDA has saved the lives of adults and children by helping remove unsafe medical products from the market."

However, Grassley also has long been a supporter of alternative health care therapies and has enjoyed support from the "health freedom" movement, which opposes strong regulation of supplements.

In 1994, Grassley co-sponsored a law championed by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act. This law established the U.S. Food and Drug Administation's (FDA) authority to regulate dietary supplements--but as a food rather than a drug. This means supplements can be marketed without any requirements that they first be proven safe or effective, as pharmaceuticals must be.

After much national attention about the dietary supplement ephedra, which was linked to injuries and deaths, Congress in 2006 passed a law to require that dietary supplement manufacturers report adverse effects--which passed the Senate by unanimous consent. (Public Law No: 109-462). However, the FDA still lacks the resources and authority to protect consumers from unsafe dietary supplements, according to a May 2009 GAO report.

Grassley has also earned plaudits from the alternative health community for co-sponsoring legislation to permit doctors to use any treatment a patient wants--including unapproved therapies or medications. (S 2618, 2006). And he's gotten cheers from the American Chiropractic Association for serving as "one of chiropractic’s strongest allies."

In 1998, the senator co-sponsored legislation to expand an alternative health care program at the National Institutes of Health; the new office became known as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.  (S. 2420, funded as part of omnibus spending bill, H.R.4328) Since 1999, the office has spent $2.5 billion on studies exploring such topics as the effectiveness of ginkgo biloba for improving memory and shark cartilage for treating cancer. (Neither proved any better than placebos).

Grassley has managed to secure some money from the center for projects in his home state of Iowa. In 2007, he announced that the NIH office was giving $191,672 to Drake University for a project called "Reproductive and Behavioral Effects of Genistein," which is exploring whether soy products eaten by pregnant women have a harmful effect on male fetal development. Another grant, for $110, 592, went to the Palmer College of Chriopractic in Davenport, for a project called "Expanding [Evidence Based Medicine] and Research Across the Palmer College of Chiropractic." In 2002, the senator helped steer $110,250 to the University of Iowa to study the "neurobiology of joint manipulation induced analgesia," as reported by the Associated Press. (Translation: that means pain relief from manipulating the body rather than using drugs.)

Unlike Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who are also champions of the alternative health industry, Grassley has not collected large amounts in campaign contributions from the nutritional and dietary supplement industries in the past, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

[Intern Josh Heath contributed research to this post.]