Cancer Center’s Board Chairman Faults Top Doctor Over ‘Crossed Lines’

This article was reported and written in a collaboration with ProPublica, the nonprofit journalism organization.

The chairman of the board of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center bluntly disparaged the hospital’s former chief medical officer on Monday, telling the hospital’s staff that the medical chief had “crossed lines” and had gone “off the reservation” in his outside dealings with health and drug companies.

The remarks by Douglas A. Warner III, the chairman of the center’s board of managers and overseers, as well as Dr. Craig B. Thompson, the chief executive, went beyond previous hospital statements about the former chief medical officer, Dr. José Baselga. Until Monday, the hospital had said Dr. Baselga followed internal policies and had mainly just failed to disclose his industry affiliations in some medical journal articles.

“I have to say, while we pushed back on a lot and discussed a lot, we were not as effective as we should have been,” Mr. Warner said, according to a preliminary transcript of a meeting with the hospital’s staff that was inadvertently emailed by the hospital to a reporter for The New York Times. “He crossed lines that we should have done more to stop.”

Dr. Baselga did not respond to phone calls or an email message requesting comment.

Monday’s meeting between hospital executives and employees was the latest in a series held by the cancer center as it conducts a broad review of policies regarding the nonprofit institution’s ties to outside industries. Memorial Sloan Kettering has been forced to re-examine its rules governing board memberships and compensation in the wake of articles by The Times and ProPublica that revealed insider deals with start-ups that were poised to reap millions of dollars for breakthroughs in cancer treatments and biotechnology advances.

The hospital’s senior executives have come under scrutiny in recent weeks, leading Mr. Warner to question on Monday whether Dr. Thompson would be permitted to continue sitting on the board of Merck, which makes the blockbuster cancer drug Keytruda. In addition to his position with Merck, Dr. Thompson is also a director of Charles River Laboratories, a publicly traded company that assists research in early drug development.

Dr. Thompson received $300,000 in compensation from Merck in 2017, according to company financial filings. He was paid $70,000 in cash from Charles River in 2017, plus $215,050 in stock. The compensation for the two corporate boards was in addition to what he was paid as chief executive at Memorial Sloan Kettering. In 2016, he earned $6.7 million in total compensation from the cancer center and related organizations, according to the most recent Internal Revenue Service filings.

“Should Craig continue to sit on the Merck board? We have no policy on that,” Mr. Warner said during the meeting, explaining that he had discussed the board membership with Dr. Thompson when he joined the hospital in 2010. And while it was viewed as a “good thing,” Mr. Warner added that “we need to step back from that now and ask ourselves whether that continues to be appropriate, whether it’s appropriate in the future.”

In a memo late last week and again at Monday’s meeting, the New York-based cancer center emphasized the need to overhaul its policies, which had failed to address some of the potential conflicts made public recently at a time when investors are tossing vast amounts of money at start-ups developing promising treatments.

Dr. Thompson said Monday that working with for-profit companies remained a priority. “We cannot be shy about the importance of investments in bringing forward these advances,” he said.

Dr. Baselga had failed to disclose millions of dollars in payments from health and pharmaceutical companies in medical journal articles. In his resignation letter, he acknowledged his lapses and said the controversy had proved to be “too much of a distraction.”

Neither his resignation letter nor the hospital’s statement about it suggested that he had been fired. But in his remarks, Mr. Warner indicated that Dr. Baselga had been forced out. “I have to say it’s a tragedy,” he said. “I liked José. I like José a lot. But unfortunately, José left us no choice.”

Dr. Baselga, one of the world’s leading breast cancer researchers, has also resigned from the boards of the drugmaker Bristol Myers-Squibb and Varian Medical Systems, a maker of radiation equipment.

Christine Hickey, a hospital spokeswoman, said: “Dr. Baselga resigned, he was not fired. Mr. Warner was making the point that we had no choice but to accept his resignation.”

She also said Mr. Warner and Dr. Thompson were referring not to his ties to outside companies but to a “conflict of commitment.”

“Dr. Baselga wanted to take on more, join more boards, be involved in more outside efforts,” she said. “He was overextended.”

Memorial Sloan Kettering also announced late last week that it would limit the involvement of its board members in start-ups affiliated with the hospital, a development that followed news of an exclusive deal the hospital made with an artificial intelligence company founded by Memorial Sloan Kettering insiders.

On Monday, Representative Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, sent a letter to Dr. Thompson seeking answers to a series of questions about the deal with the company, Paige.AI, giving it the right to access images of 25 million tissue slides analyzed over decades. Her letter questioned how the hospital planned to ensure patient privacy, among other issues, many of which had been raised by hospital doctors at the internal meetings once the deal became public.

Also on Monday, The New England Journal of Medicine published a correction on two of Dr. Baselga’s articles. The correction lists Dr. Baselga’s relationships with 15 companies. An editor’s note appended to the correction states: “Dr. Baselga failed to disclose in these articles his multiple, substantial financial associations, which are now apparent in the updated disclosure forms. When we learned of this breach of trust, we conveyed our concern to Dr. Baselga’s institution, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.”

In his own comments to the staff, Dr. Thompson apologized for what he described as his poor handling of the recent crisis and said Dr. Baselga had not acted appropriately.

“José reported to me, and I wish I had done more to keep him away from the line,” Dr. Thompson said, according to the partial transcript of Monday’s meeting. “While Dr. Baselga has acknowledged his mistakes and resigned, this has not brought closure to M.S.K. It has led to discussions of whether we still know where the right side of the line is.”

Mr. Warner, a former chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Company, acknowledged that there was “widespread anger” among staff members and that the hospital’s reputation had been harmed.

“The question that you’re asking quite properly is: Where the hell was management and the board in all of this? You should have protected this institution,” Mr. Warner said. “The fact that you’re angry is all about the passion that you feel for this place, that love that you have for this place, that commitment that you have to this place, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Charles Ornstein is a senior editor at ProPublica.

This article was reported and written in a collaboration with ProPublica, the nonprofit journalism organization. Charles Ornstein is a senior editor at ProPublica.

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