Sunday, February 21, 2016

Ho-hum, Another Month, Another Set of Multi-Million Dollar Settlements by Health Care Corporations Acting Badly

Amazingly, with a US presidential election looming, there is finally some public discussion here of the impunity of top corporate executives.  Columnist Gretcher Moregenson wrote on February 6, 2016 in the New York Times,

Ho-hum, another week, another multimillion-dollar settlement between regulators and a behemoth bank acting badly.


As has become all too common in these cases, not one individual was identified as being responsible for the activities. Once again, shareholders are shouldering the costs of unethical behavior they had nothing to do with.

It could not be clearer: Years of tighter rules from legislators and bank regulators have done nothing to fix the toxic, me-first cultures that afflict big financial firms.

Similarly, but more broadly, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D - Massachusetts) published a report in January, 2016, entitled "Rigged Justice: 2016 - How Weak Enforcement Lets Corporate Offenders Off Easy." She summarized its main conclusions in a New York Times op-ed,

Corporate criminals routinely escape meaningful prosecution for their misconduct.


In a single year, in case after case, across many sectors of the economy, federal agencies caught big companies breaking the law — defrauding taxpayers, covering up deadly safety problems, even precipitating the financial collapse in 2008 — and let them off the hook with barely a slap on the wrist. Often, companies paid meager fines, which some will try to write off as a tax deduction.

The failure to adequately punish big corporations or their executives when they break the law undermines the foundations of this great country. Justice cannot mean a prison sentence for a teenager who steals a car, but nothing more than a sideways glance at a C.E.O. who quietly engineers the theft of billions of dollars.

These enforcement failures demean our principles. They also represent missed opportunities to address some of the nation’s most pressing challenges.

In particular, she cited this example involving health care.

When Novartis, a major drug company that was already effectively on federal probation for misconduct, paid kickbacks to pharmacies to push certain drugs, it cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and undermined patient health. Under the law, the government can boot companies that defraud Medicare and Medicaid out of those programs, but when Novartis got caught, it just paid a penalty — one so laughably small that its C.E.O. said afterward that it 'remains to be seen' whether his company would actually consider changing its behavior.

Note that we discussed the Novartis settlement here.  The case referred to by Senator Warren was just the latest in a series of ethical misadventures by Novartis which led to legal actions in the US and around the world, but feeble penalties.

But while Ms Morgenson wrote about financial institutions, now we can also write:

Ho-hum, another month, another set of multimillion-dollar settlements between regulators and  behemoth health care companies acting badly.

In chronological order, since mid-January, 2016...

For $830 Million, Merck Settled Shareholders Lawsuit Alleging Deceptions by Corporate Management

On January 15, 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported,

Merck said Friday it agreed to pay $830 million to resolve a class-action lawsuit brought by shareholders, alleging the drug maker and its executives made false and misleading statements about the safety of Vioxx between its introduction in 1999 and its market withdrawal in 2004.

The shareholders alleged they paid inflated prices for Merck shares because of the company’s conduct.

Note that if the company misled its shareholders, it also misled health care professionals and the public about the harms of Vioxx,  putting many patients at risk. Of course, the Vioxx case is now old news, but it continues to be an example of a case in which the corporation paid fines, presumably at the expense of shareholders, employees and patients, but in which no one who authorized or directed the bad behavior paid any penalty.

As is typical in such cases,

Merck, which is based in Kenilworth, N.J., said Friday the settlement of the shareholders’ lawsuit doesn’t constitute an admission of liability or wrongdoing by the company or individual executives named as defendants in the case.

Merck has paid billions to settle multiple lawsuits related to Vioxx, yet what it paid was much less than the revenue produced by the drug.

The bulk of Merck’s Vioxx-related costs came from its 2007 agreement to pay $4.85 billion to settle thousands of product-liability lawsuits alleging that patients’ use of Vioxx caused heart attacks and strokes, and that Merck failed to properly warn people of the risks. Merck didn’t admit liability in that settlement.

In addition, Merck agreed in 2011 to pay $950 million to resolve allegations by the U.S. Justice Department and state governments that the company deceived the government about the safety of Vioxx, and marketed it for uses not included in the prescribing label approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Merck recorded more than $11 billion in Vioxx sales during the drug’s years on the market from mid-1999 to September 2004.

The company did plead guilty to one criminal charge related to Vioxx.

 As part of the 2011 settlement, Merck pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor criminal violation of a federal drug law, admitting that it promoted Vioxx to treat rheumatoid arthritis before that use was approved by the FDA.

But apparently no Merck manager was ever charged with a crime, much less convicted.  We have discussed the Vioxx case here, and other issues with Merck here.

Note that this settlement comes soon after a smaller settlement in 2015 that was barely mentioned in the press,Merck to pay $5.9 million for misleading marketing of pink eye drug: U.S [Reuters]

For $785 Million, Pfizer Settled Suit Alleging Overcharging of Medicaid

On February 16, 2016, per the Wall Street Journal,

Drugmaker Pfizer Inc. on Tuesday said it reached an agreement in principle to pay $784.6 million to settle a long-running U.S. government investigation of allegations that its Wyeth unit overcharged government Medicaid health programs for the heartburn drug Protonix.

Of course,

Pfizer said the agreement doesn’t include any admission of liability by Wyeth.

Much less did the agreement include any penalties for anyone at Wyeth or Pfizer who authorized or directed the overcharging. Yet some people must have.

Note that this settlement did not seem informed by Pfizer's amazingly lengthy record of legal settlements, and some guilty pleas and/or convictions (for illegal marketing/ misbranding, and for violating the racketeering influenced corrupt organization [RICO]  statute), as most recently summarized here.

Note also, pertinent to the report by Senator Warren mentioned above, every week people pay severe penalties for defrauding Medicaid, Medicare, or other federal health programs.  Today, a quick Google search for "medicaid fraud prison" found such stories from the last month as a woman sentenced to five years in Louisville, and another women sentenced again to five years in Dallas. Yet no person at Pfizer paid any penalty for for practices that deprived the government of hundreds of millions of dollars.  

For $250 Million, Fresenius Settled Lawsuits Alleging it Withheld Information About the its Products' Hazards

Per the New York Times, January 18, 2016,

The world’s largest provider of kidney dialysis equipment and services has agreed to pay $250 million to settle thousands of lawsuits from dialysis patients and their relatives claiming that the company’s products had caused heart problems and deaths.

The settlement was announced by Fresenius Medical Care, a German company whose North American division is one of the two large dialysis providers in the United States.

The lawsuits arose after Fresenius’s own medical office sent an internal memo to doctors in the company’s dialysis centers saying that failure to properly use one of the company’s products appeared to be causing a sharp increase in sudden deaths from cardiac arrest.

But the company did not warn doctors in non-Fresenius clinics who were also using the product, called GranuFlo. It did so only after the internal memo was sent anonymously to the Food and Drug Administration, which began an investigation.

 The company conducted a recall, which was actually a change in the label, not the removal of the product from the market.

Note that this settlement was of allegations not of financial chicanery, but of behavior that put patients in harms way. Nonetheless,

Kent Jarrell, a spokesman for the company, said the initial internal memo was actually incorrect and contradicted by further careful analysis. He said the warning language added to the GranuFlo label in 2012 was eventually removed. GranuFlo, and a related product called NaturaLyte, are used in dialysis machines to help cleanse patients’ blood.

In the first case to go to trial, a jury in Massachusetts state court ruled that Fresenius was negligent, for not distributing the memo more widely, but that a patient’s death could not be attributed to GranuFlo, so no monetary damages were awarded, according to Mr. Jarrell and to Christopher Seeger, a lawyer who led the settlement negotiations for the plaintiffs.

But if the initial concern was unwarranted and Fresenius won the first trial, why would it pay $250 million to settle? Mr. Jarrell suggested that a reason was to put the more than 10,000 lawsuits behind it.

'Fresenius deeply regrets the confusion and concern temporarily generated by the November 2011 memorandum,' he said in an emailed statement.

Again, there were no admissions or findings of guilt, no apologies (except for causing "confusion and concern"), and no negative consequences for the corporate managers who authorized or directed the actions in question.  While the FDA apparently issued a recall notice for GranuFlo, no federal agency apparently took action against the company or any individuals within it.    Also, this settlement seemed uninformed by previous settlements made by Fresenius, which were made in 2011 of allegations of false claims, in 2010 again of allegations of false claims, and in 2007 of allegations of restraint of trade (look here).


We first discussed how legal settlements may serve as markers for misbehavior by large health care organizations, but not as deterrents to future bad behavior in 2006.  Then we wrote ...

 Why do the mainly monetary penalties seem mainly to come out of the hides of stock-holders and consumers, rather than the people who actually made the decisions that lead to the offenses?

In 2008, we wrote,

After all, a fine or settlement paid years later can just be written off as a cost of doing business. Furthermore, although such a payment may have a (minimal) effect on the company's bottom line, it has no real effect on the people whose decisions and actions lead to the problem.

So rather than repeating our usual verbiage about the impunity of health care leaders, let me defer to Senator Warren:

Laws are effective only to the extent they are enforced. A law on the books has little impact if prosecution is highly unlikely.

This country devotes substantial resources to the prosecution of crimes such as murder, assault, kidnapping, burglary and theft, both in an effort to deter future criminal activity and to provide victims with some degree of justice. Strong enforcement of corporate criminal laws serves similar goals: to deter future criminal activity by making would-be lawbreakers think twice before breaking the law and, sometimes, by helping victims recover from their injuries.

When government regulators and prosecutors fail to pursue big corporations or their executives who violate the law, or when the government lets them off with a slap on the wrist, corporate criminals have free rein to operate outside the law. They can game the system, cheat families, rip off taxpayers, and even take actions that result in the death of innocent victims—all with no serious consequences.

The failure to punish big corporations or their executives when they break the law undermines the foundations of this great country: If justice means a prison sentence for a teenager who steals a car, but it means nothing more than a sideways glance at a CEO who quietly engineers the theft of billions of dollars, then the promise of equal justice under the law has turned into a lie. The failure to prosecute big, visible crimes has a corrosive effect on the fabric of democracy and our shared belief that we are all equal in the eyes of the law.

Under the current approach to enforcement, corporate criminals routinely escape meaningful prosecution for their misconduct. This is so despite the fact that the law is unambiguous: if a corporation has violated the law, individuals within the corporation must also have violated the law. If the corporation is subject to charges of wrongdoing, so are those in the corporation who planned, authorized or took the actions. But even in cases of flagrant corporate law breaking, federal law enforcement agencies – and particularly the Department of Justice (DOJ) – rarely seek prosecution of individuals. In fact, federal agencies rarely pursue convictions of either large corporations or their executives in a court of law. Instead, they agree to criminal and civil settlements with corporations that rarely require any admission of wrongdoing and they let the executives go free without any individual accountability.

Keep in mind that the impunity of health care leaders, especially in contrast with the tough enforcement efforts against small fry health care offenders, not only has a corrosive effect on the fabric of democracy but endangers patients' and the public's health, and makes health care more expensive and inaccessible.

Maybe now that the impunity of corporate leaders is becoming a mainstream topic of discussion, we can start talking about, and then doing something about the impunity of corporate leaders in health care. 


Anonymous said...

Not sure discussion is going to help. Has it helped so far? Words without actions are like laws unenforced, ineffective. Every time a do-badder gets off it recruits more do-badders. A viscous circle feed back loop.

It's going to take a lot more than words to end the madness.

The upcoming elections are crucial. Last time we elected hope and change and didn't get much of either.

Now it's clear choices between revolution and status quo.

Judy B said...

I sincerely hope that the discussion becomes more public. I am sick of health and financial big-wigs having a free pass for bad behavior!
Thanks Dr. Poses for your continuing efforts to effect meaningful change and bring miscreants not only public shame but hopefully criminal charges.

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Anonymous of February 22, 2016

The problem is that outside of this blog, there has been little discussion of the bad behavior of health care organizations, and the impunity of their leaders as causes of the current severe dysfunction of the US health care system. In fact, there may be pressures not to discuss such issues, at least for people who are in health care. We have called this the anechoic effect (see: ) If people are not aware of the problem, they are not going to seek solutions. So I see my job is to make some noise about these issues, in hopes of inspiring some change.

By the way, this blog is officially non-partisan, and I am not going to make any recommendations about voting in the upcoming US elections (in which there may be issues that are even bigger than health care). Public comments by candidates or campaigns relevant to the issues we discuss on this blog may be subject to our comment. I have not heard of a candidate suggesting making health care executives more accountable, but if anyone knows of one taking such a position, please let us know. (Senator Warren has not announced any interest in running for president, at least so far.)

afraid said...

Roy, the bigger problem starts with Wall Street and K Street. At least some candidates intend on doing something about the bigger problems. Can healthcare be fixed when it is a favorite wealth making toy of the rich? History shows us the powerful do not go easily into the night.

Roy M. Poses MD said...


I agree that what is going on in health care is part of what is going on in the larger political economy. But I am not sure that the problems having to do with finance and government are bigger than those having to do with health care and government, and I think these problems need to be tackled together. You are surely right that the powerful who are benefiting from the status quo will not be happy about attempts at reform, and have the ability to resist these mightily.