Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Just Another Day at the Office: Boehringer Ingelheim Settles Allegations of Deceptive Off-Label Marketing, Kickbacks

Legal settlements by pharmaceutical companies for less than $100 million now seem to barely rate as news in the US. The best report, albeit short, of a by Boehringer Ingelheim for a mere $95 million, seems to be in the Hartford (CT) Courant. The summary was:
Boehringer Ingelheim, a German company with U.S. headquarters in Ridgefield, has agreed to pay $95 million to settle allegations that it promoted four drugs for uses unsupported by research, and that it paid kickbacks to doctors to prescribe the drugs, the U.S. Department of Justice has announced.
It included most of the usual elements.

Off Label Marketing
Two of the drugs in the case are for treating chronic bronchitis and emphysema, and were suggested for children with asthma and coughs from the flu. The drugs had not been tested on children.
'I was concerned that doctors were basing their treatment decisions on false information,' [former Boehringer Ingelheim pharmaceutical representative and whistle blower Ron] Heiden said in the released statement. 'Promoting off-label treatments with potential serious consequences just to increase sales is heinous behavior.'
I note parenthetically that some industry apologists belittle the possible harms of truthful off-label marketing (e.g., look here).  However, at least in this case, the marketing was alleged to be based on falsehoods. 

Furthermore, some industry apologists may also decry the regulation of off-label marketing as a violation of the US Constitutional guarantees of freedom from government infringement on individual free speech.  Note, however, that Boehringer Ingelheim in this case got exclusive rights to market these drugs for many years from the government.  In exchange for these rights, the law restricted their right to market the drugs to approved indications.  

Promotion Beyond the Evidence
The company told doctors Aggrenox was better than Plavis to reduce the risk of heart attacks, but there was no evidence to support that claim, the Justice Department said. The drug had FDA approval to prevent secondary strokes.
Again, the truthfulness of the premises underlying the marketing apparently was questionable, to use charitable phrasing.  

Kickbacks to Physicians

This information came from the AP version of the story, here via the Washington Post:
the settlement resolved allegations that Boehringer Ingelheim paid kickbacks to health care professionals to induce them to prescribe all four of the drugs. These kickbacks included payments for participating in advisory boards, speakers’ training programs, speaker programs and consultant programs.
 Note further that apologists for industry also belittle the importance of the effects of conflicts of interest on health care (e.g., look here).  In this case, activities that are often referred to as species of conflicts of interest, e.g., advisory board membership, speakers board membership, consulting, apparently were meant as vehicles for payments to induce prescribing.  That is, apparently what some might have called conflicts of interests were allegedly kickbacks, or bribes.  As we have discussed before, it is one thing to be paid for legitimate clinical, educational, or scientific activity when such payments might influence professional, educational, or scientific judgments or activities about other matters.  It is entirely another thing to be paid a kickback to favor a drug company's marketing campaign instead of making decisions that put patients first.

A Corporate Integrity Agreement

[From the Hartford Courant]

Also as part of the settlement, Boehringer agreed to enter into an expansive Corporate Integrity Agreement to avoid such marketing in the future.

 We have noted before that such agreements do not seem to deter future bad behavior, (e.g., look here).

No Admission of Wrongdoing by the Company

[from the AP]

'The pharmaceutical industry as a whole has undergone significant changes over the past decade and continues to be under intense scrutiny,' said Greg Behar, president and chief executive officer of Boehringer Ingelheim. 'Likewise, our internal processes and compliance practices have evolved significantly over the years.' The company said it has been cooperating with the government investigation.
Again, if there is no acknowledgement by the company that it did wrong, do we expect it not to do wrong in the future?


Here was yet another legal settlement that documents the pervasiveness of the influence of marketing and public relations over physicians' professional responsibilities.  This is just one of several recent posts (e.g., here and here) about the malevolent influence of deceptive marketing or public relations on the evidence that health care professionals should be using to make the best possible decisions for individual patients.

Such legal settlements seemingly have had no effect on the bad behavior of big health care organizations, while they continually erode trust in these organizations and their leadership, and trust in physicians to put patients ahead of personal gain. 

Furthermore, these cases seem to be part of a larger social problem.  It seems that nowadays the leadership of large, powerful organizations feels free to promote their own interests using psychologically sophisticated but deceptive marketing and public relations strategies no matter what their effect on the public welfare.

As we have said all too many times before, we will not deter unethical behavior by health care organizations until the people who authorize, direct or implement bad behavior fear some meaningfully negative consequences. Real health care reform needs to make health care leaders accountable, and especially accountable for the bad behavior that helped make them rich.


Steve Lucas said...

“Furthermore, some industry apologists may also decry the regulation of off-label marketing as a violation of the US Constitutional guarantees of freedom from government infringement on individual free speech.”

I am really tired of those in business laying claim that somehow their rights to lie and steal have been infringed upon through being denied their Constitutional Rights. It is a long established legal precedent that corporations do not, repeat, do not have a right to freedom of speech and statements that are deceptive are considered an act of fraud.

Repeating something over and over does not make it true.

I was also pleased to see it reported that the BMJ will soon require, and is asking, that all drug trial patient level data for existing and new drugs be publicly available before they will publish a review.

My only question is: Do American publications have the spine to follow?

Steve Lucas

Anonymous said...