A unit of CVS Caremark Corp. used its access to doctors to market Eli Lilly & Co.'s Zyprexa antipsychotic while it was under contract to bargain with the drug maker on behalf of health insurers, internal Lilly files disclosed in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit by insurers show.
The subsidiary of CVS, the largest US drugstore chain, touted Zyprexa starting in 2003, according to e-mails made public by lawyers suing Lilly for overpayment. CVS's AdvancePCS, a pharmacy benefit manager, or PBM, offered to send 120,000 letters to doctors promoting the drug, Lilly's top-seller with $4.7 billion in sales last year, according to a confidential 2004 proposal. The CVS unit said it would charge $5 per letter.
AdvancePCS, acquired by Woonsocket, R.I.-based CVS in 2007, said in the documents that the direct-mail campaign was 'designed to influence key prescribers' as part of a 'tactical plan for Zyprexa.'
In AdvancePCS's 2004 pitch to Lilly offering to send out letters promoting Zyprexa, Kevin Aholt, the company's assistant vice president in charge of strategic alliances, said he could target physicians based 'on the most recent AdvancePCS claims data,' according to the unsealed documents.
Aholt also said that one of the 'key issues' in the market for antipsychotic drugs was finding ways to 'accelerate the growth of new patient starts,' according to the proposal.
Steven Fuchs, an official at the PBM, asked Lilly officials in an April 2004 e-mail whether he should include information about Zyprexa's ability to calm agitated patients in the next round of letters to doctors.
'Would a discussion of that be something you would want to include?' Fuchs asked, according to the document.
Lilly marketing executive Scott Dell responded in an e-mail that officials at the drug maker had discussed asking AdvancePCS to include material highlighting 'the new bipolar maintenance indication for Zyprexa.'
AdvancePCS was not the only pharmacy benefits manager (PBM) that offered to help sell Zyprexa.
CVS rival Express Scripts Inc. also sent out Zyprexa marketing letters, according to the unsealed documents and also isn't named as a defendant in the suits.
So here we have at least two pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) offering to help market a particular drug, for money, of course. What is the problem here?
CVS's contracts with insurers and pensions meanwhile place it in an adversarial posture with Lilly, requiring it to use its buying power as leverage in drug-price negotiations.
'The problem is that PBMs are negotiating these hidden deals while at the same time telling employers that they represent them at the negotiating table,' said Gerry Purcell, a former PBM executive who advises companies on their drug plans. 'These documents will add fuel to the perception that the companies and the PBMs are in cahoots with each other.'
While PBMs negotiate on behalf of insurers, most states don't designate them as agents of the benefit plans, said Robert Garis, a pharmacy professor at Creighton University in Omaha who studies the industry. As a result, they aren't legally required to act only in the best interest of their clients, he said. Maine is one of a few states that have specified PBMs as fiduciaries, or agents, he noted.
'The companies have gotten around that by adding language to their contracts that exclude them from having to meet those fiduciary duties,' Garis said.
Apparently, in this case, one PBM said it disclosed its relationship to the drug company to physicians, but it is not clear whether it was disclosed to the health care insurers and managed care organizations which paid the PBM to reduce the costs of drugs:
CVS, which isn't a defendant in the Lilly suit, said that it tells doctors when it has 'financial relationships' with drug makers and that they are free to opt out of mailings.
'To engage in a point/counterpoint in a media outlet rather than in court would not be productive,' said Lilly spokeswoman Marni Lemons.
Lemons declined to answer specific queries about the CVS or Express Scripts letters, whether Lilly paid for the practice, or other questions raised by the unsealed documents....
CVS said in its e-mailed statement that it has 'no active educational programs' related to Zyprexa.
'CVS Caremark discloses to its PBM clients that it may have financial relationships with pharmaceutical manufacturers in connection with these educational programs,' said Christine Cramer, a spokeswoman for the chain. 'CVS Caremark's PBM clients are aware of these programs and have the opportunity to opt out.'
Maria Palumbo, a spokeswoman for Express Scripts, didn't respond to eight telephone and e-mail requests seeking comment.
CVS covers 82 million people, with a market share of 12 percent, and is the largest pharmacy benefit manager, according to Atlantic Information Services. Express Scripts, which covers 55 million people, is the fifth largest. PBMs process about 75 percent of the retail prescriptions written annually in the United States, according to the insurance plans.
The insurance plans sued the drug maker in 2005, contending it used researchers, pharmacy benefit managers, advocacy groups, and public agencies to promote Zyprexa.
Whether or not the PBMs disclosed their relationships to the pharmaceutical company to everyone who might be interested, it does seem that having PBMs who are supposed to help insurers and managed care organizations control drug costs be paid by pharmaceutical companies to market drugs is yet another new species of institutional conflict of interest. Like the many other conflicts of interest, individual and institutional, we have discussed, this one appears to be mutually advantageous to the parties involved. However, it could have adverse consequences for physicians, patients, and the health care system. If the organizations that are supposed to be controlling drug costs are also promoting expensive drugs, the likely result would be excess prescription of expensive drugs to patients who may not derive benefits from the drugs outweighing their harms.
This is another reminder how much we need more sunshine shone on the multitudinous conflicts of interest affecting just about every type of actor within the current US health care system.