Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ghosts in the Criminal Machine - How a Drug Company Can Plead Guilty to Federal Fraud, Yet No One is Held Responsible

We have often discussed how leaders of health care organizations have become increasingly unaccountable for their actions.  A recent, slightly obscure story shows how a corporate admission of guilt to a felony can be used to prevent anyone, including anyone in corporate management, from being held responsible for that fraud.

Basics of the Settlement

The case was that of ISTA Pharmaceuticals.  The basics appeared in brief wire service articles, like this one from Rueters (via Fox News):

Ista Pharmaceuticals pleaded guilty on Friday to charges it used kickbacks and improper marketing to boost sales of a drug meant to treat eye pain and agreed to pay $33.5 million to settle criminal and civil liability, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

The unit of eye care company Bausch & Lomb pleaded guilty to conspiracy to offer kickbacks to induce physicians to prescribe Xibrom, a drug meant to treat pain after cataract surgery, and conspiracy to promote that drug for unapproved uses, including after Lasik and glaucoma surgeries.

Ista agreed as part of a criminal settlement to a $16.63 million fine and an $1.85 million asset forfeiture. It also agreed to a $15 million civil settlement to resolve allegations that its marketing of Xibrom caused false claims to be submitted to government health care programs.

Kickbacks Disguised as Honoraria and Consulting Fees

Note that unlike many such legal settlements involving large health care organizations, this one involved admissions of guilt to felonious criminal offenses.  The severity of the charges apparently arose out of the egregious conduct of company executives.  Colorful details were supplied by the Buffalo (NY) News:

ISTA, which is based in California, admitted using kickbacks to doctors and an illegal marketing campaign as part of an elaborate scheme to increase its sales of Xibrom.

The scheme, outlined in detail in newly released court papers, ranged from company-provided instruction sheets for doctors to continuing medical education programs to promote the drug.

In many cases, ISTA employees were told not to leave printed materials behind in doctors’ offices or to keep records of their meetings with doctors in order to avoid detection by others.

The company went so far as to offer speaking engagements and consulting appearances to doctors in hopes that they might use Xibrom for non-authorized treatments.

Doctors can legally prescribe drugs for non-FDA approved treatments, but drugmakers are prohibited from promoting their products for those uses.

'Essentially they entered into consulting arrangements to induce physicians to prescribe their drug,' said Jeffrey I. Steger, a lawyer in the Consumer Protection Branch of the U.S. Department of Justice.

When [US District Judge Richard J] Arcara asked if money was the doctors’ motivation, Steger said yes.

'Thousands of dollars,' he told the judge.

So here we have a company admitting that it bribed doctors to prescribe its drug, and its techniques of administering bribes included paying the doctors honoraria to give talks, and paying the doctors as consultants.  As an aside, note that many defenders of "collaboration" among doctors and industry sign the praises of doctors "consulting" for industry, and often see nothing wrong with industry paying doctors for "educational" speeches.  Yet here is more evidence that such paid talks and consulting assignments may be nothing more than marketing, and at times are merely disguised bribery.

An Apparently Tough Penalty

An unusual feature of this settlement was that (per Reuters):

As part of the settlement, Ista will be barred from participating in Medicare and Medicaid,...

That would appear to be the death knell for the company, as reported by Reuters,

Bausch & Lomb, which is based in Rochester, New York, said it was pleased to settle the matter, which involved conduct between January 2006 and March 2011, and that it knew of the government probe well before it purchased Ista.

That purchase closed in June 2012 and Bausch and Lomb plans to wind down the Ista corporate entity by year end.

So Bausch and Lomb bought a company that turned out to be valueless?  But wait,...  there's a trick. 

As detailed in FiercePharma,

 ISTA will be barred from doing business with Medicare, Medicaid, et al, for 15 years. Luckily for Bausch + Lomb, however, it bought ISTA in June 2012,  late enough in the game to actually escape the ramifications of exclusion. The exclusion won't begin until 6 months after the settlement date, giving Bausch + Lomb time to transfer ISTA's products out of that subsidiary and shift the drugs over to the Bausch + Lomb label.

A Crime Committed by... No One?

So Bausch and Lomb gets ISTA's drugs, and essentially can resolve the company's felony convictions by relatively small fines, and through management sleight of hand, can finesse ISTA's disbarment from federal programs..  This will occur despite admissions that someone within ISTA, presumably within ISTA management, perhaps high up in ISTA management, per FiercePharma,

instructed reps to avoid leaving a paper trail of their off-label discussions with doctors. Prosecutors had enough evidence of this to persuade ISTA to plead guilty to a felony fraud charge. 'These instructions were given in order to avoid having their conduct relating to unapproved new uses being detected by others, the Justice Department said. 'ISTA agreed that this conduct represented an intent to defraud under the law.'

So felony fraud was committed, but no person apparently committed it.  It was as if a ghost committed the crime.
Not only was a crime committed, but apparently by nobody, the corporation within which the crime was committed also becomes obscure.  ISTA became responsible, but by being bought out by Bausch and Lomb, the more severe penalty directed against ISTA will be meaningless.  
Should Bausch and Lomb be responsible?  Of course, they claim they should not.  As reported by Bloomberg, 
 Rochester, New York-based Bausch & Lomb said the actions occurred 'well before' it acquired Ista in 2012. 

'Bausch & Lomb is committed to earning trust in everything that we do and is pleased to have resolved this pre-acquisition issue,' Bob Bailey, a Bausch & Lomb spokesman, said in a statement. 

In fact, The Hill reported that the bad behavior took place from 2005 to 2010: 

But consider that while ISTA recently became part of Bausch and Lomb, since 2007, Bausch and Lomb has been wholly owned by private equity firm Warburg Pincus.  In fact, as we discussed in in 2009, some people suspected that this maneuver would have allowed Baush and Lomb to settle multiple suits alleging that its products were faulty and dangerous out of the public eye.  So while ISTA is now really Bausch and Lomb is now really Warburg Pincus, no one in the management of ISTA, Bausch and Lomb, or Warburg Pincus apparently will be held responsible for criminal fraud and kickbacks to doctors, even though guilty pleas for these felonies have been made.  So somehow we have admissions that crimes were committed, crimes that compromised the integrity of doctors, and exposed patients to needless side effects, yet these crimes were apparently committed by ... nobody, by a ghost, and even the machine that ghost was in - was it ISTA, Bausch and Lomb, or Warburg Pincus? - becomes a mystery.  Where is Sherlock Holmes when we need him most?.


This case thus becomes a really striking example of the impunity of health care corporate managers.  They can commit crimes, even felonies, yet the company, but no human beings, is held responsible.  But the company being a company, it cannot go to jail.  And through the magic of obfuscatory corporate take-overs, which company is guilty is not even apparent. 

As we have said ad infinitum,

 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.


Afraid said...

Corporations are people too!!!

Anonymous said...

OK, so how is it that the crimes 'compromised the integrity of doctors' -- couldn't it be that it is, in fact, the questionable integrity of some clinicians that makes this practice possible (and apparently profitable). I remember being at a medical conference when a drug company rep was being questioned about the practice of flying doctors and their families on junkets, and she agreed that it was reprehensible, and said that her company would stop it just as soon as it stopped working!!

Anonymous said...

It takes two to successfully commit fraud, yet whenever I see news reports or blog posts about this sort of fraud, no one ever mentions the clinicians who accept these bribes. They are as complicit in this scheme as the companies.

Roy M. Poses MD said...

To the various anonymous commentators above,

Sure, it takes two parties to perpetrate a kickback.

Health Care Renewal does not have the capacity to do original reporting, so we depend on media accounts and other public data to provide us the material on which to comment.

The media reports here emphasized the actions of the company, not the individual doctors who accepted the money.

However, we, at least, have certainly discussed the physicians who take the money. For an introduction, see our posts about key opinion leaders,