May 20--Update: Added below the story, Cascade AIDS Project defends the area's need for Truvada
When Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel asked the county to spend $200,000 to promote an HIV prevention drug, she failed to disclose that her son works for the drug's maker.
Ryan McKeel, formerly an AIDS activist, now works for Gilead Sciences, a drug maker that has been controversial in recent years for its pricing practices.
Last week, McKeel introduced a budget amendment seeking taxpayer money to contract with an advocacy group to promote awareness of the pill, Truvada, and to urge potential "high-risk" patients to consult with their doctors.
While she read from her prepared remarks, McKeel made no mention about her son. McKeel was unavailable Wednesday afternoon because she was flying back from visiting family in Washington, D.C, said Eric Zimmerman, her chief of staff.
"We're going to make this right," Zimmerman said. "The thing about the amendment: it's not about giving money to any one company. It's about an outreach campaign."
McKeel did not mention her son in a county Code of Ethics Disclosure Form dated April 29, 2014 and released to The Oregonian/OregonLive Wednesday.
McKeel plans to make her disclosure during Thursday's board meeting, Zimmerman said.
An elected public official shall "announce publicly the nature of the potential conflict prior to taking any action," according to state law.
Zimmerman said he believed no laws were broken because no action was taken. During the county's budget process, commissioners can propose amendments to the county's proposed 2015-16 budget, but they won't vote on the amendments until June 18, the day they're scheduled to adopt the budget.
"She's done a proposed amendment," Zimmerman said. "From an official action standpoint, she has brought the conversation up."
So far, no other company makes the pill for domestic use because it's under patent protection.
Ryan McKeel, whose LinkedIn page lists his position at Gilead as "associate director," did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Simple online searches show Ryan McKeel, as a spokesman for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation before working at Gilead Sciences, has been interviewed about the use of PrEP, short for pre-exposure prophylaxis. PrEP is another name before the pill was branded as Truvada.
During her remarks, Diane McKeel mentioned that the San Francisco Health Authority set a goal of reaching zero new HIV diagnoses by using PrEP as part of the strategy.
"Unfortunately, PrEP has been recommended for use for a year now, and yet few people even know about such medication, few even know that it is recommended for them, and a misunderstanding and some stigma has arisen around this medication," McKeel said last week.
Without insurance, each Truvada pill can cost between $48 and $53 dollars or almost $1,600 per month, according to Drugs.com. Some insurance plans accept the pill, and Gilead does provide some sort of financial assistance for low-income users.
Gilead has been in the news lately for its pricing of Sovaldi, a next-generation "cure" to Hepatitis C. At $1,000 per pill, the treatment costs $84,000 for a 12-week treatment, sparking accusations of price-gouging.
"It may be a thousand-dollar pill but it ... cures the person for life," Gilead executive vice president Gregg Alton told state lawmakers in September. If you don't cure those afflicted, he added, they will face other costly illnesses and complications. "You actually end up with a much higher cost."
The company has taken fire over what some call the excessive compensation of its CEO, John Martin. Last year he took in nearly $190 million.
More recently, Gilead has come under fire from AIDS activists for not spending more of its own money to market Truvada as a preventative measure. A few months ago a pharmaceutical newsletter, Fierce Pharma, quoted a company spokeswoman as saying the firm "does not view PrEP as a commercial opportunity and is not conducting marketing activities around Truvada as PrEP."
The Cascade AIDS Project sent out a press release Wednesday afternoon applauding Diane McKeel for her push to reduce HIV transmission.
"CAP has long advocated to both Multnomah County and the state for the use and promotion of PrEP," Tyler TerMeer, CAP executive director, said in the statement. "It is critical that the public be informed about this important tool in the fight against HIV."
"We have been extremely gratified by the leadership that Multnomah County and Commissioner Diane McKeel in particular have taken on this issue," he added. "Failing to move it forward will have real world consequences including more HIV infections which may have otherwise been prevented."
-- Tony Hernandez
-- Nick Budnick
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