Friday, October 30, 2009

AstraZeneca Settles

Here is the latest in the parade of legal settlements of cases of alleged wrong-doing by health care organizations.  As reported by Duff Wilson in the New York Times,
The pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca said Thursday that it had reached a $520 million agreement to settle two federal investigations and two whistle-blower lawsuits over the sale and marketing of its blockbuster psychiatric drug Seroquel.

One of the investigations related to 'selected physicians who participated in clinical trials involving Seroquel,' AstraZeneca disclosed in a government filing. The other case related to off-label promotion of the drug.

Seroquel was the top-selling antipsychotic drug in America. It had $17 billion in sales in the United States since 2004, according to IMS Health, a research firm.

Tony Jewell, a company spokesman, declined to be more specific about the physicians or clinical trials under investigation. He said the company was in final negotiations to settle the whistle-blower suits and reach a corporate integrity agreement with the Justice Department.

The name of the whistle-blowers and other details of the suits remained sealed in federal court. Stephen A. Sheller, a lawyer in Philadelphia for the whistle-blowers, and Patricia Hartman, a spokeswoman for the United States attorney in Philadelphia, both declined to comment.

Here we go again. As the Times article noted,
AstraZeneca, based in Britain, joins a list of drug makers that have paid billions to settle inquiries initiated by complaints from former company insiders.

Earlier this year, Eli Lilly & Company paid $1.4 billion over its marketing of Zyprexa, another antipsychotic drug. And Pfizer announced it would pay $2.3 billion, including a record $1.195 billion criminal fine, mostly over its painkiller Bextra, which has been withdrawn from the market.

Does anyone really still believe that integrity agreements, and settlements assessed against huge corporations deter such profitable bad behavior? A half a billion dollar one-time settlement is just a small cost of doing business for a company that sold $17 billion worth of the offending drug in the last five years. As in the case of many other previously announced settlements, it appears that nobody who authorized, directed, or implemented the bad behavior that led to the settlement will suffer any sort of negative consequences.

We previously discussed allegations that AstraZeneca manipulated and suppressed clinical research, and organized deceptive marketing campaigns in support of Seroquel sales (here, and here).  If we do not discourage such practices, they will continue to bias the clinical evidence making expensive drugs and devices seem more effective and less dangerous than they really are.  Is it any wonder that we over-use and over-pay for these products?  Anyone seriously interested in reforming health care to improve quality and access while moderating costs ought to pay attention to behavior that leads to such over-use and over-payment. 

(However, there may be hope.  Perhaps in the future there will be more effective deterrence.  A recent indictment named not only the device company Stryker Biotech (a subsidiary of Stryker Corporation), but also its former CEO and three managers.)

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