Thursday, February 11, 2010

Merck Settles Another Vioxx Case

All the shenanigans that went on in the course of Merck's marketing of the now withdrawn Cox-2 inhibitor non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx have provided grist for the Health Care Renewal mill since 2005.  For example, see these posts:

here about ghost-writing of a Vioxx research publication;
- here, and here about allegations that Merck executives tried to intimidate Vioxx critics;
- here about how advocates of an extreme laissez faire approach to regulation of health care corporations used illogical arguments about the Vioxx case;
- here about how an apparently major clinical trial of Vioxx turned out to be a "seeding trial," that is, a study really meant to recruit supposed physician-researchers as prescribers; and
- here about how one once prominent Vioxx researcher pleaded guilty to fraud in connection with his research on other drugs. 

Thus, the Vioxx case provides a good lesson about some of the tactics used to deceptively and unethically promote health care products (pharmaceuticals in this case).

Merck just announced just the latest settlement of Vioxx related legal actions, as reported by Business Week:
Merck & Co. agreed to settle shareholder lawsuits over the withdrawn Vioxx painkiller by strengthening its drug-safety procedures, appointing a new chief medical officer and paying $12.2 million in legal fees.

Merck would appoint one committee to address risks that require immediate action and another to monitor the safety of drugs, the company said in a regulatory filing. Merck would also amend its code of conduct to promote scientific and academic integrity as well 'honest communication' with doctors.

'In all research endeavors that are sponsored by Merck, we will refrain from attempting to influence inappropriately the results and conclusions of such research,' according to the amended code. 'We strive for all communications with the medical community to be accurate, truthful and consistent with labeling.'

The company will be required to make corporate governance changes and “supplement existing policies and procedures,” ... [a Merck spokesperson] said.
Merck would submit results of clinical trials to a public registry, with its compliance overseen by an independent third party.

The chief medical officer will have an 'executive voice' on product safety issues independent of Merck Research Laboratories.
Note that this settlement is only of one type of lawsuit, as described in a Wall Street Journal article,
The pact, which is pending final court approval, would resolve state and federal shareholder 'derivative' complaints (which are brought by shareholders on behalf of a company) alleging that current and former Merck officers and directors breached their fiduciary duties in handling Vioxx.
Merck had already settled thousands of lawsuits,
Since the Vioxx controversy erupted, about 27,000 personal-injury lawsuits have been filed, the company says. Merck has been challenging all of the cases and settled many of them. Most notably, it agreed to a pay $4.85 billion to settle personal-injury claims of more than 40,000 people. In another settlement, the company will pay $80 million to resolve 190 claims filed by drug-benefit plans seeking to recover costs of paying for Vioxx use.
Merck has lots of other legal actions to go through,
The Vioxx litigation remains far from over. The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a separate shareholder case, seeking billions of dollars in damages from the company. Merck disclosed last year the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston was conducting a grand-jury investigation of Merck's handling of Vioxx. The claims of some 310 plaintiff groups are outstanding in courts in the U.S., according to the securities filing. There are also cases overseas, including Australia and Turkey.
So the parade of legal actions and settlements thereof continues.  We believe that the scope of this parade provides some sort of index of bad behavior by the health care organizations needing to make such settlements.  Most of these legal results are reported on in the business media, and rarely appear in any medical, health care research, or health policy journals.  I submit that were health care professionals, health care researchers, and health policy makers more systematically aware of these cases, they might realize that unethical and sometimes illegal behavior, often generated by bad leadership unrestrained by poor organizational governance, is a major cause of the current, seemingly intractable health care crisis.

One notable attribute of the current Vioxx settlement is that it does mandate some changes in Merck's governance and leadership meant to prevent future cases similar to this one.  These include developing leadership structures and changing the company's code of conduct to emphasize the need for "truthful" communication, and the need to refrain from "inappropriately" influencing research. 

On Health Care Renewal we have discussed numerous examples of deceptive practices by health care organizations, often affecting marketing, and of manipulation and suppression of research.  It is a small step forward for one company to commit to honest communications and to not manipulate research.  A better code of conduct may at least be a start towards an organizational ethics policy, which in turn may have the potential to actually improve behavior. 

On the other hand, typical settlements that involve only monetary damages paid by the organization seem to have little deterrent effect on future bad behavior. Usually, the companies involved only need to pay fines, and no individual who performed, directed or approved unethical or illegal acts suffers 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. Until the people who approve, direct, and perform unethical or illegal acts pay some penalties, expect such acts to continue, at best deterred only slightly by written policies that condemn them. I again suggest that to truly reform health care, we need rigorous regulation of health care organizations that has the power to deter unethical behavior that may risk patients' health


InformaticsMD said...

Is it possible after this agreement that Merck Research Lab's Clinical Risk Management & Safety Surveillance department might no longer say:

"We don't need no medical informatics here?"

Sarah Miller said...

I wonder if Merck will be cleared of all other future suits related to Vioxx after this most recent settlement..