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Cancer Center’s Board Chairman Faults Top Doctor, Saying He “Crossed Lines”

The executive told Memorial Sloan Kettering staff that the hospital did not do enough to limit the industry conflicts of its chief medical officer, who has resigned.

From left: Memorial Sloan Kettering board chairman Douglas A. Warner III, chief medical officer Dr. José Baselga and hospital CEO Dr. Craig B. Thompson attend a Society of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center event in 2017 in New York City. (Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times)

This article was produced in partnership with The New York Times.

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 staff that he “crossed lines” and went “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 he 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,” Warner said, according to a preliminary transcript of a meeting with the hospital 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.”

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

Monday’s meeting between hospital executives and its employees is the latest in a series held by the cancer center as it conducts a broad review of policies about 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 startups that were poised to reap millions of dollars for breakthroughs in cancer treatments and biotech advances.

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

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,” Warner said during the meeting, explaining that he had discussed the board membership with Thompson when he joined the hospital in 2010. And while it was viewed as a “good thing,” 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 startups developing promising treatments.

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.

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 was fired. But in his remarks, Warner indicated that Baselga was forced out. “I have to say it’s a tragedy. I liked José. I like José a lot,” he said. “But unfortunately, José left us no choice.”

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 Warner and 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 startups 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, Rep. Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan, sent a letter to 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 Baselga’s articles. The correction lists 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, Thompson apologized for what he described as his poor handling of the recent crisis and said Baselga had not acted appropriately.

“José reported to me, and I wish I had done more to keep him away from the line,” 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 MSK. It has led to discussions of whether we still know where the right side of the line is.”

Warner, a former chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Company, acknowledged “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.”

Katie Thomas covers the pharmaceutical industry for The New York Times.

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Charles Ornstein is a deputy managing editor at ProPublica, overseeing the Local Reporting Network, which works with local news organizations to produce accountability journalism on issues of importance to their communities. From 2008 to 2017, he was a senior reporter covering health care and the pharmaceutical industry. He then worked as a senior editor.

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