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David Seymour's special envoy in medicines is dumping his drug company investments

David Fisher,
Publish Date
Tue, 28 May 2024, 2:10pm

David Seymour's special envoy in medicines is dumping his drug company investments

David Fisher,
Publish Date
Tue, 28 May 2024, 2:10pm

Act MP Todd Stephenson is selling his investments in drug companies while labelling as “outrageous” claims by the Labour Party that he is a “pharmaceutical industry plant”.

The move comes as the Herald has revealed further links between Stephenson, drug companies he once worked for and party leader David Seymour, the Associate Minister of Health with responsibility for Pharmac, the government’s drug-buying agency.

Stephenson is parliamentary private secretary to Seymour, a position which takes advantage of the specialist knowledge he has developed in 17 years of working in the pharmaceutical industry.

But it is that background which has drawn scrutiny after the newly published Register of Pecuniary Interests for MPs showed he held investments in three drug companies.

It emerged just as Stephenson returned from a fully funded trip to Sydney, where he spoke at a conference focused on the biotech and pharmaceutical industry as the guest of the organiser, a publisher focused on the pharmaceutical industry.

The Herald has also reported that Seymour has had three meetings with drug companies since becoming minister. Two of those companies - Vertex and Johnson & Johnson - were former employers of Stephenson and Johnson & Johnson was one of the companies in his investment portfolio.

In Parliament last week, Labour deputy leader Carmel Sepuloni said Seymour should remove Stephenson from the role and referred to him as a “pharmaceutical industry plant”.

In a statement, Stephenson said: “There is no conflict between my declared shareholdings and the work I have been doing to support David Seymour as the Associate Health Minister.”

He pointed to Sepuloni’s claim as having been made under Parliamentary privilege - meaning she cannot be sued for the slur - and said “any suggestion that I have done anything other than use my experience to assist in making better public policy is completely baseless”.

Stephenson said the role he now held was not part of the executive and had no decision-making powers. Instead, he said, “its purpose is to build relationships with relevant communities, represent the minister at public events, and assist with administrative matters”.

The statement reiterates Seymour’s position that Stephenson was not subject to Cabinet manual so not conflicted by his shareholdings.

Act MP and new Parliamentary Private Secretary Todd Stephenson with Associate Minister of Health David Seymour and Pharmac chief executive Sarah Fitt.
Act MP and new Parliamentary Private Secretary Todd Stephenson with Associate Minister of Health David Seymour and Pharmac chief executive Sarah Fitt.

“I take my role as a parliamentary private secretary and MP extremely seriously. That’s why I have been consistently open and transparent about the meetings I have attended and have declared my shareholdings in the pecuniary interests register.

“I will not allow anything to distract from the Government’s goal of delivering real change in the critical area of medicines access. I’ve decided to divest all my shareholdings as reported in the pecuniary interests register to ensure no distraction exists.”

Stephenson said Sepuloni’s allegation showed “she doesn’t understand how Pharmac operates”.

“Pharmac does not share information about specific drugs with ministers, and ministers have no ability to influence Pharmac’s decision-making process.”

Stephenson had been clear ahead of the election that there were areas he wanted to see change brought to Pharmac.

In a podcast interview for AstraZeneca with its corporate affairs manager for Australia and New Zealand, Penny George, he said he wanted to see Pharmac engage better with those affected by its decision-making.

“I often say a modern corporate like AstraZeneca, for example, it’s much more open with its stakeholders - you’re inviting in people, you’re actually trying to understand their points of view and work with them. So, you know, Pharmac needs to do a bit more of that as well and actually work with people, partner and be a bit less isolated.”

Seymour, too, has told the Herald he wanted to see major reform which he believed would increase the amount of money New Zealand spends on medicines. Based on population and GDP, New Zealand spends less than a third of what comparable countries spend on medicines.

The Labour Party has focused on Stephenson’s links to pharmaceutical companies, raising the prospect of him having a hand in drafting the letter of expectations for incoming new Pharmac chair Paula Bennett.

Stephenson has received a clamour of support from patient advocacy groups who have told the Herald they feel they have been listened to.

He was heavily involved in organising the New Zealand Medicines Access Summit held in April at Parliament which was considered a big win for the advocacy sector, with those who attended saying it was the first time they were able to gather with officials, clinicians, drug companies and others in the sector.

Patient Voice Aotearoa chairman Malcolm Mulholland said: “My view of Todd is that he comes with a wealth of experience not only from a pharmaceutical perspective but from a health technology perspective.”

However, there was also a voice of caution from broadcaster and medicines advocate Rachel Smalley, who said Stephenson’s political naivety was showing. “He can’t hold this role and be invested in pharma at the same time.”

David Fisher is based in Northland and has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years, winning multiple journalism awards including being twice named Reporter of the Year and being selected as one of a small number of Wolfson Press Fellows to Wolfson College, Cambridge. He joined the Herald in 2004.

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