Pfizer Inc., the world’s biggest drugmaker, agreed to pay $60.2 million to settle foreign bribery cases it brought to U.S. authorities involving alleged payments paid by employees and agents of subsidiaries.
Pfizer entered into two agreements with the Securities and Exchange Commission and the New York-based drugmaker reached a deferred prosecution accord with the Department of Justice, according to filings today in federal court in Washington.
This case is worth perusing because of how it documents what the US government called not merely deceptive, but corrupt practices used by Pfizer to sell drugs. The practices were widespread around the world:
The settlements announced today include Pfizer operations in eight countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Italy, China, the Czech Republic and Serbia. The Wyeth settlement, over its nutrition business, was for China, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
The practices involved, not to put too fine a point on it, bribing doctors. Furthermore, as part of the settlement Pfizer apparently admitted to some of the specific practices alleged by the government:
In Bulgaria, local representatives spent $28,000 to invite government doctors on 'incentive trips' to Greece, as a reward for the physicians who were the biggest prescribers of Pfizer’s products, Pfizer admitted according to the Justice Department filing. They also paid $17,000 to send doctors to medical conferences, again in exchange for commitments to prescribe Pfizer drugs.
In Croatia, the unit there had used a consulting agreement with a government doctor to help influence which drugs were allowed to be sold in the country, paying the physician in cash and travel expenses, Pfizer admitted.
Pfizer also admitted to what was called the 'hospital program,' in Russia, where doctors were given a 5 percent kick- back on certain drugs prescribed.
'Pfizer Russia used the Hospital Program to make cash payments to individual government healthcare professionals to corruptly reward past purchases and prescriptions of Pfizer products, and to corruptly induce future purchases and prescriptions,' the Justice Department said in the filing. Pfizer’s Russian unit also used intermediary companies to pay off doctors and government officials, the company admitted.
No Individual Penalties
Despite the shamefulness of these practices, as is now distressingly usual (look here), no individual seems to be obligated to suffer any penalty or negative consequences as a result of this settlement. While the US government alleged criminal behavior, beyond the fines imposed on the company, further prosecution will be deferred:
The Justice Department charged the Pfizer HCP Corp. unit with two criminal counts, conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and a violation of the FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions. Prosecutors agreed to defer prosecution and drop the charges after two years if Pfizer continues to cooperate and take remedial steps.
The article contained a curious statement seemingly asserting that the payments were somehow made independent of any actions by individuals at Pfizer:
The SEC said the payoffs were made 'without the knowledge or approval of officers or employees of Pfizer, but the inaccurate books and records of Pfizer subsidiaries were consolidated in the financial reports of Pfizer.'
So were the payments made by machines acting autonomously? or by ghosts? Maybe this was just a typo. However, note that the de rigeur statement by Pfizer's internal counsel was phrased so as to imply the actions somehow occurred outside of the organization:
'The actions which led to this resolution were disappointing, but the openness and speed with which Pfizer voluntarily disclosed and addressed them reflects our true culture and the real value we place on integrity and meeting commitments,' Amy Schulman, Pfizer’s general counsel, said in an e-mailed statement.
This latest settlement reaffirms the poor ethical culture now prevalent in major health care organizations throughout the world. It also affirms how deeply unethical the culture has become at some of our largest and most prominent and influential health care organizations. This settlement is only the latest evidence of ethical missteps by Pfizer's leadership.
In the beginning of the 21st century, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pfizer made three major settlements,
October 2002: Pfizer and subsidiaries Warner-Lambert and Parke-Davis agreed to pay $49 million to settle allegations that the company fraudulently avoided paying fully rebates owed to the state and federal governments under the national Medicaid Rebate program for the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor.
May 2004: Pfizer agreed to pay $430 million to settle DOJ claims involving the off-label promotion of the epilepsy drug Neurontin by subsidiary Warner-Lambert. The promotions included flying doctors to lavish resorts and paying them hefty speakers' fees to tout the drug. The company said the activity took place years before it bought Warner-Lambert in 2000.
April 2007: Pfizer agreed to pay $34.7 million in fines to settle Department of Justice allegations that it improperly promoted the human growth hormone product Genotropin. The drugmaker's Pharmacia & Upjohn Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty to offering a kickback to a pharmacy-benefits manager to sell more of the drug.
Thereafter, Pfizer paid a $2.3 billion settlement in 2009 of civil and criminal allegations and a Pfizer subsidiary entered a guilty plea to charges it violated federal law regarding its marketing of Bextra (see post here). Pfizer was involved in two other major cases from then to early 2010, including one in which a jury found the company guilty of violating the RICO (racketeer-influenced corrupt organization) statute (see post here). The company was listed as one of the pharmaceutical "big four" companies in terms of defrauding the government (see post here). Pfizer's Pharmacia subsidiary settled allegations that it inflated drugs costs paid by New York in early 2011 (see post here). In March, 2011, a settlement was announced in a long-running class action case which involved allegations that another Pfizer subsidiary had exposed many people to asbestos (see this story in Bloomberg). In October, 2011, Pfizer settled allegations that it illegally marketed bladder control drug Detrol (see this post).
Thus, it appears on 10 separate occasions between 2002 and 2012, Pfizer settled allegations of, pleaded guilty to, or was convicted for actions that represented seriously unethical behavior. Note that these included a conviction that found the company to be a racketeer-influenced corrupt organization.
Yet the company has not failed or been restructured, and none of its leaders has ever faced any negative consequences. In fact, last year its CEO made over $18 million, up from over $6 million the year before (see this post).
So obviously it is not just that one company's culture has become seriously corrupt. We seem to live in such a corrupt nation, and maybe such a corrupt global society that such corrupt cultures thrive in our major corporations and organizations. Despite stories like this in health care, just like in finance despite the global financial collapse, as Charles Ferguson said at the Oscar awards last year, " not a single ... executive has gone to jail, and that's wrong."
Unless we hold leaders of health care organizations accountable for bad behavior and corruption, expect bad behavior and corruption to get worse. Until we have political leaders with the courage to stand up for honesty and the law, expect continued dishonesty and the law to continue to be trampled by the rich and powerful.