Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Boston Scientific to Plead Guilty (of Suppressing Information about Failure-Prone Defibrillators)

In the early days of Health Care Renewal (2005-2006) we posted several times about allegations that Guidant hid information about defects in the implantable cardiac defibrillators (ICDs) the company manufactured.  As we noted in early 2005 here, Guidant executives allegedly knew that ICDs made from 2000-2002 were at risk for short-circuiting and failing, thus making them unable to deliver potentially life saving electrical shocks meant to prevent cardiac arrests, but the company only revealed the problem in 2005.  By failing to notify physicians and the public, Guidant executives let expensive and profitable, but potentially useless devices to continue to be implanted, potentially increasing the risk of sudden death for the patients who received them.  Then here we noted reports that Guidant continued to ship failure-prone devices even after it had designed and started to manufacture new ICDs that were supposed to be less likely to fail.  By June, 2005 we posted that Guidant had recalled thousands of ICDs, including models that were previously not identified as likely to fail.  Later that year, the case rated an article by Robert Steinbrook in the New England Journal of Medicine.  Towards the end of 2005, we noted that Eliot Spitzer had sued Guidant for fraud.  At the end of the year, more information appeared, suggesting that Guidant knew the ICDs were flawed, but continued to sell them.  Still more appeared early in 2006.  Then the business media became interested in the bidding war between Johnson and Johnson and Boston Scientific for Guidant, provoking a bit more interest in the tale of the suppression of data about the flawed ICDs.

And then there was silence.  The story of the suppressed information about the defective defibrillators became old news, as did the story of the merger between Boston Scientific and Guidant.  The story vanished, nothing more happened, until last week

A lone echo from this story from what now seems long ago was heard, as reported by Bloomberg,
Boston Scientific Corp. agreed to pay $296 million to settle a U.S. Justice Department investigation into its Guidant unit’s handling of heart devices and restated third-quarter results to show a loss.

Guidant will plead to two criminal misdemeanors for failing to properly alert the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about problems with some of its implantable defibrillators, Boston Scientific said today in a statement. The probe concerned product advisories sent by Guidant before its acquisition by Boston Scientific in April 2006, the parent company said.

So even though Boston Scientific's now subsidiary Guidant will plead guilty to a crime involving suppression of information about the flaws in its defibrillators, the current CEO of Boston Scientific denied anyone did anything wrong:
'Guidant and its employees acted in good faith and believed they complied with applicable laws and regulations,' Boston Scientific Chief Executive Officer Ray Elliott said in the company’s statement. 'We elected to resolve this matter so we could put it behind us and devote our full energies and resources to developing our innovative technologies.'

I guess it's not hard to put a little matter of criminal conduct behind a big health care corporation and its leaders when the only downside of pleading guilty is a fine paid seven years after the criminal conduct occurred.  Moreover, that fine that will come out of the company treasury, and its impact will thus be spread among stock-holders, employees, and customers, not targeted at those who performed, directed or approved the acts that lead to the guilty plea.

Although the Bloomberg report was more detailed than others I found, none mentioned that the information that was concealed back in the day was about the failure of an expensive device that was supposed to be life-saving, and whose failure might doom some of its recipients to an early death.  Anyone reading these late 2009 articles would get a sense that Guidant personnel were guilty of some technical reporting violations, not of withholding information that supposed life-saving treatments might be useless.

As in the case of many other cases that resulted in legal settlements or guilty pleas, the company involved only needs to pay a fine, and no individual who performed, directed or approved unethical or illegal acts will suffer any negative consequences.  I submit once again that such fines are viewed merely as costs of doing business by the affected companies, and do not deter future bad behavior.

In this vein, note that in 2005, Boston Scientific agreed to a $74 million settlement of charges that it knowingly sold a defective coronary artery stent system (see post here), which did not deter the company from merging with Guidant. 

This case also demonstrates how the anechoic effect continues.  Bad behavior by large health care organizations still gets little notice, and when it is noticed, its real clinical and human effects are discounted. 

Real health care reform would address how leaders of health care organizations can continue to act with impunity even when their actions can lead to sickness, disability, and death. 


Anonymous said...

Interesting and complete report on these devices.

Based on what is known, the same could be said for certain HIT equipment makers, but they have the luxury of having circumvented FDA regulation. How they did that should be subject of investigation.

This is how a report could read:

"HIT vendor XX will plead to two criminal misdemeanors for failing to properly alert the U.S. Government about problems with some of its "certified" CPOE systems, XX said today in a statement. Patients were paralyzed as a result".

The US Government has spent $ billions on these devices, that in certain circumstances have malfunctioned, causing adverse events that reach the patient, and disruptions that have delayed critical care from being provided on time.

Anonymous said...

I was one of the ones that had the first class one recall,the ones they knew were bad.This has been tied up in court for seven years,with the lawyers making money and the plantiffs left waiting and wondering when it would be settled.Then the courts started with delay after delay,dividing the settlement into three sections,with no one knowing anything.Some have only got first part,some second,but no one has gotten all of their settlement.After lawyers,fees,court costs,there was very little left for the people who were affected in the first place.All of us have lost complete respect for the lawyer and court systems.The government gets a hugh settlement,and all of us think we deserve some of that money,to make up how we got screwed by the justice system.

Robert said...

Sometimes I wonder how people can sleep at night when they knowingly put lives at risk just to make a couple bucks.