A sponsor of legislation that would overhaul the embattled Cancer Prevention and Research Institute told a House committee on Wednesday that “there was never anybody feathering their nest” with CPRIT funds and that the problems at the institute could be attributed in part to "overzealousness."
State Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, the sponsor of Senate Bills 149 and 150, which have passed through the Senate, said that his examination of the controversial grants issued by CPRIT found that there was also “highhandedness” by the institute’s former leadership to launch the institute and begin its mission to fight cancer quickly. “Unfortunately, rules were not followed,” he said.
After two hours of testimony in the House Public Health Committee on Wednesday, SB 149 was left pending, and the panel plans to continue testimony and consider SB 150 after the House chamber adjourns.
CPRIT has been embroiled in controversy over the last year. After the former scientific officer resigned in May 2012 and levied accusations of a faulty grant review process, a state audit revealed that three grants — totaling $56 million — were approved without proper peer review. The Travis County district attorney’s office is conducting an investigation to determine whether the actions of three former CPRIT employees were criminal. And state leaders called for a moratorium on CPRIT grants in December, which left a combined $183 million in approved grants on hold.
Despite calls by some lawmakers to disband the institute, state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, chairwoman of the Public Health Committee, said the state “should give it another try and make sure these dollars are spent in the way that was told to the people.”
Senate Bill 149 would restructure CPRIT’s leadership, establish a compliance program to ensure grants are not approved without peer review, clarify that CPRIT employees are prohibited from having professional relationships with grantees, and strengthen the oversight of advanced payments, matching funds and honorarium for scientific peer reviewers.
“We have painstakingly gone over conflict of interest in this bill,” Keffer said at Wednesday’s hearing.
He offered a committee substitute that also eliminates the nonprofit that supplements the salaries of CPRIT’s executive director and chief scientific officer. The CPRIT Foundation, the nonprofit that supplements the salaries of CPRIT’s leadership, recently changed its name to the Texas Cancer Coalition and is winding down its operations. Lawmakers criticized the nonprofit at an April House hearing for rebranding itself and cutting ties with the beleaguered institute amid the Legislature’s efforts to reform the institute.
In 2007, Texas voters approved the use of $3 billion in bonds, which must be repaid with interest, to create CPRIT and finance cancer research, development of cancer treatments and cancer prevention programs for 10 years.
Senate Bill 150 would allow royalties, licensing fees or other income collected by CPRIT to be used to pay for debt service on CPRIT bonds, and it prohibits the agency from using bond proceeds to pay debt service on the bonds. Currently, the money CPRIT collects can only be used to fund additional grants, purchase laboratory facilities or operate the agency.
CPRIT has already added a compliance officer and a team to implement the reforms recommended in the state audit: Wayne Roberts, the associate vice president of public policy at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, who was appointed in December as CPRIT’s interim executive director; Billy Hamilton, a fiscal consultant and the state’s former chief revenue estimator; and Margaret Kripke, the former executive vice president at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
Roberts told the committee that Hamilton has verified that the correct processes were followed for all of the grants awarded by CPRIT, except the three grants identified in the state audit.
“Where the wheels went off, if you will, was not following processes in three instances,” said Roberts. When he and Hamilton came to the institute in December, “we became concerned about the limited number of staff that were doing post-grant review monitoring,” he added.
Although CPRIT staff monitoring awarded grants were the first to identify many of the problems included in the state auditor’s report, Roberts said there simply was not enough of them. He has requested additional money to hire eight new employees and a permanent internal auditor.
Cancer advocates and CPRIT grant recipients testified at the hearing in favor of reforming the institute, not shuttering it.
“CPRIT has allowed us to make that bridge from the lab and into the clinic, which is very exciting,” said Dr. Paul Lammers, president and chief executive officer of Mirna Therapeutics. “It’s a long and very expensive process to do drug development,” he added, explaining that Mirna Therapeutics received a three-year, $10 million commercialization grant from CPRIT that was used to develop the first in a new class of cancer treatment drugs. Last week, the company began its first clinical trials.
“This program is vital and critical for saving lives of people in Texas,” said Terry Wilson-Gray, the executive director of the Bridge Breast Network, which used a CPRIT grant to expand a program that offers mammograms to uninsured women from 13 to 22 counties in North Texas. The Bridge Breast Network has had to turn down 388 women who needed mammography services since February, said Wilson-Gray, because the organization’s two-year CPRIT grant expired and they could not apply for a renewal because of the grant moratorium.
Since 2010, CPRIT has awarded nearly 500 grants totaling $836 million. With some of that financing, Texas’ higher-education institutions have recruited 44 prominent cancer researchers to the state, and 184,000 Texans have been screened for cancer — including 38,000 people who had never received cancer screenings before, according to the institute’s figures.
Despite an ongoing moratorium, state leaders gave CPRIT permission to pursue contracts for 25 grants that were approved before the moratorium took effect to bring additional cancer researchers to Texas. Roberts has said the moratorium on new grants will not be lifted until the agency is further reformed.