Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pfizer's Umpteenth Settlement (for $491 Million Plus a Guilty Plea), but No Person Held Responsible

The world's largest research based pharmaceutical company was in court again, as reported by the New York Times,

 The drug maker Pfizer agreed to pay $491 million to settle criminal and civil charges over the illegal marketing of the kidney-transplant drug Rapamune, the Justice Department announced on Tuesday

In particular,

 The recent case centers on the practices of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, which Pfizer acquired in 2009.

Rapamune, which prevents the body’s immune system from rejecting a transplanted organ, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1999 for use in patients receiving a kidney transplant. However, federal officials said Wyeth aggressively promoted the drug for use in patients receiving other organ transplants, even offering financial incentives to its sales force to do so.

Accusations of Wyeth’s practices became public in 2010 after a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by two former employees was unsealed.

After lawmakers announced a Congressional inquiry, the Justice Department opted to join the lawsuit. The settlement announced Tuesday, which also resolves a second, similar whistle-blower suit, includes a criminal fine and forfeiture of $233.5 million, and a civil settlement of $257.4 million with the federal government, all 50 states and the District of Columbia. 

The case did not get much media coverage.  So far, the only other somewhat detailed article on it was put out by Bloomberg.   In fact, the lawyer for two of the whistle-blowers who alerted federal authorities to what Wyeth was doing had to say

the spate of pharmaceutical settlements in recent years had blunted reaction to what he said were shameful practices. 'Everybody’s been asking me why this case is different than any other,' he said. 'We used to trust these companies. You can’t trust these companies anymore.'

However, we should not be too blase.  This case was not only about money.  The over-promotion of a potentially dangerous drug likely lead to patients being harmed in the absence of any benefits.  Rapamune suppresses the immune system and increases risks of serious infections and malignancy.  Specific serious adverse events have been reported when it is used in transplants of organs other than the kidney (e.g., lung and liver transplants).  (See full prescribing information here.)  Bloomberg reported that 90% of Wyeth's revenues from Rapamune came from off-label uses, suggesting that quite a few people may have been adversely affected by its excess use. 

As in most other members of the march of legal settlements by big health care organizations, this case involved no negative consequences for anybody who authorized, directed, or implemented the improper marketing practices.  While such people must have existed, they were not even named in the press coverage.  At least this settlement involved a guilty plea to a crime, albeit a misdemeanor (misbranding as reported by Bloomberg), so the company did have to admit some wrongdoing.  

A Pfizer manager, however, tried to disavow responsibility, as noted by Bloomberg,

'Pfizer was not a subject or target of this matter, and cooperated fully with the government from the time it learned of this investigation in October 2009,' Chris Loder, a Pfizer spokesman,...

But Pfizer had purchased Wyeth, and in doing so got not only assets and profits, but responsibility for actions.

Also, neither the settlement nor the criminal plea seemed to take into account Pfizer's amazingly sorry recent track record.  I am losing count of all of Pfizer's settlements and/or guilty plea or convictions since 2000.  (The updated list of previous legal results is in the Appendix.)  

People found guilty of small-time Medicaid or Medicare fraud often forfeit all their assets and go to jail.  Yet actions by large pharmaceutical companies that may harm patients and cost many millions of dollars almost never result in any individual facing any negative consequences, or even being named and shamed.  Meanwhile, the managers of these companies may make gargantuan amounts of money partially rationalized by the revenues produced by such recurrent misbehavior.  In 2012, according to the company's 2013 proxy filing, Pfizer CEO Ian Reed's total compensation was  $25,634,136, and the four next most highly paid executives all made more than $5,000,000

So the Kabuki play that is regulation of and law enforcement for large health care organizations goes on.  As our society is being increasingly divided into a huge majority in increasingly difficult economic circumstances and a small and  increasingly rich minority, it also seems to be increasingly divided into little people who may be ruined by lawsuits, and imprisoned for even minor infractions, and big people who have impunity.  

True health care reform would need to start by making leaders of big health care organizations accountable for their organizations' misbehavior. 

APPENDIX - Pfizer's Settlements

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). 
In August, 2012, Pfizer settled allegations that its subsidiaries bribed foreign (that is, with respect to the US) government officials, including government-employed doctors (see this post).
In December, 2012, Pfizer settled federal charges that its Wyeth subsidiary deceptively marketed the proton pump inhibitor drug Protonix, using systematic efforts to deceive approved by top management, and settled charges by multiple states' Attorneys' General that it deceptively marketed Zyvox and Lyrica (see this post).  
 In January, 2013, Pfizer settled Texas charges that it had misreported information to and over-billed Medicaid (see this post). 


Anonymous said...

Only $491,000,000? Well is must not have been that bad or it would have been more eh?

Marlowe Doman said...

Excellent blog post. Until individual accountability is included in pharma prosecutions, there will be no change in their behavior. Right now it's just the shareholders footing the bill. I commented on this issue on my blog