Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has sent a letter asking FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to explain why the agency monitored the personal email of employees who expressed concern about medical device safety, The Hill's "Healthwatch" reports (Pecquet, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 2/2).
Last month, six current and former FDA scientists and physicians filed a lawsuit alleging that FDA monitored their personal email after they warned congressional staffers that the agency approved medical devices that might pose risks to patients.
According to government documents gathered by the plaintiffs, FDA started intercepting personal Gmail communications between several of its employees and congressional staffers in January 2009 and continued the surveillance for two years. FDA also took screenshots of the employees' computer desktops and reviewed documents that they had saved on their hard drives.
The plaintiffs argued that FDA violated their constitutional right to privacy by checking their personal email accounts. They also argued that the information obtained by FDA contributed to the harassment or dismissal of the six employees (iHealthBeat, 2/6).
In his letter, Grassley wrote that he is seeking answers from FDA to "ensure that whistleblowers aren't singled out and retaliated against for protected disclosures to Congress" (Modern Healthcare, 2/2).
The letter asked FDA to respond to several questions, such as:
- Who approved the monitoring of the current and former employees;
- Whether the monitoring targeted only staff members who expressed concern about device safety; and
- Whether FDA is continuing to monitor any of its employees ("Healthwatch," The Hill, 2/2).
Grassley asked Hamburg to respond to his letter by Feb. 17 (Daly, Modern Healthcare, 2/2).
Erica Jefferson -- an FDA spokesperson -- said that Hamburg plans to "respond directly" to Grassley (Rein/Nakashima, Washington Post, 2/1).
The log-in screen of FDA's computer system warns employees that they should not expect their communications to be private and that the agency can monitor any data on government computers for lawful purposes (iHealthBeat, 2/6).