Thursday, June 17, 2010

Deferred Prosecution Agreements End, So Let the Payments Grow

Starting in 2007, we posted (here, here, here, here and here) about the payments, often huge, that five manufacturers of prosthetic joints (Biomet, DePuy Orthopaedics (a unit of Johnson & Johnson), Stryker Orthopedics,a unit of Stryker Inc, Zimmer Holdings, and Smith & Nephew) revealed they made to orthopedic surgeons and various academic and other organizations. These revelations were the results of deferred prosecution agreements made in 2007 between four of the companies and the US Department of Justice after the latter charged Biomet, DePuy, Zimmer, and Smith and Nephew with giving surgeons kickbacks, disguised as consulting fees, to promote their products.  Stryker entered into a voluntary compliance agreement (see post here). 

We also noted that some of the leadership of the major orthopedic societies have received substantial amounts from these companies, as have the societies themselves. A 2008 post on this subject noted the minimal disclosure some of the surgeons receiving these huge payments made when writing scholarly articles on related topics.

Now in 2010, Bloomberg News reported on the results, such as they were, of these ballyhooed agreements:
The government declared last year that it had overhauled the financial relationships between surgeons and the biggest makers of knees and hips, saying the threat of criminal prosecution for 'kickbacks' had forced them to slash payments to physicians. Results of the crackdown were 'truly extraordinary,' said Christopher Christie, a former U.S. attorney for New Jersey who is now governor, in testimony to Congress in June 2009.

It was too good to be true. Compensation ended up being higher after the September 2007 deferred prosecution agreement because payments were postponed, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and interviews with seven surgeons.

'It’s back to business as usual' says Charles D. Rosen, president of the Association for Medical Ethics, who is a spine surgeon in Irvine, California. 'Nothing will change until someone goes to jail. It’s a big game.'

Apparently, while during the course of the agreements the companies decreased payments to surgeons, they made up for it later:
Prosecutors in the New Jersey U.S. Attorney’s Office, which headed the case, reported a 'satisfactory completion' in March 2009 of the probe of Biomet Corp., Johnson & Johnson’s DePuy unit, Smith & Nephew PLC, Zimmer Holdings Inc. and Stryker Corp. Payments in 2008 fell to $105 million from $272 million the year before, the Justice Department lawyers said.

The companies increased doctor compensation for 2008 to about $300 million, according to the data compiled by Bloomberg from reports posted on the device makers’ websites. Fees for 2008 were delivered in 2009, the surgeons say.

Payment delays were 'a common happenstance,' says Teresa Ford, a Seattle attorney who represents 150 doctors who have consulting or royalty agreements with orthopedic device makers. “None of them had significant changes in their relationships.”

A month after the government closed its case, Zimmer CEO David Dvorak told analysts on a conference call that the action didn’t result in a 'material change' to what it pays surgeons.

Attempts by Bloomberg reporters to find out more did not reveal much:
Since the agreement, payments to surgeons have been appropriate and for legitimate purposes, according to spokespeople for the five companies. Wright says on its website that it adheres to industry ethical standards in its dealings with consultants.

As for 2008 fees that weren’t delivered until 2009, three of the companies say they froze payments while monitors were reviewing contracts with surgeons to ensure they were proper. Spokesmen for Stryker and Smith & Nephew declined to comment. Three of the court-appointed monitors say they’re barred from talking about the details of their work. The two others, including former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, didn’t return telephone calls. The department declined to release reports the monitors filed.

We have repeated often (e.g., here) the argument that limiting punishments of health care organizations for wrong-doing to corporate fines and deferred prosecution agreements has not deterred further wrong-doing.  Most of the cases which we have discussed involved pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, and sometimes health insurers.  It seems that the argument also applies to device manufacturers. 

To underline the lack of a deterrence effect, others payments by other device companies to other surgeons have also recently come to light. In 2008, we discussed payments made by Medtronic revealed in various court filings. Medtronic just started voluntarily revealing more information. For example, as reported by the St. Louis Business Journal, Dr Larry Lenke helped Medtronic develop a spinal surgery system, so
In the first three months of 2010, Lenke earned $832,000 in royalties from Medtronic, putting him on track to top $3 million in royalties this year.

Lenke received between .5 percent and 1 percent of sales of the system in royalties.

'The royalties are very small, but the sales are large,' he said. Lenke is cho-chief of adult and pediatric spinal, scoliosis and reconstructive surgery and the Jerome J. Gliden professor of orthopedic surgery at the Washington University School of Medicine, the director of spinal surgery at Shriners Hospital for Children, and a spine consultant to the St. Louis Rams and Blues.
Like the surgeons we discussed in 2008, neither Dr Lenke nor Washington University seemed to make an effort to reveal his multi-million dollar relationship with Medtronic.

Dr Lenke's official web-page at Washington University does not reveal financial ties to, much less multi-million dollar royalties from Medtronic. A quick review of a few of Dr Lenke's published articles reveal such vague disclosures as:
One or more of the author(s) has/have received or will receive benefits for personal or professional use from a commercial party related directly or indirectly to the subject of this manuscript: e.g., honoraria, gifts, consultancies, royalties, stocks, stock options, decision making position.
[Bridwell KH, Glassman S, Horton W, Shaffrey C, Schwab F, Zebala LP, Lenke LG, et al. Does treatment (nonoperative and operative) improve the two-year quality of life in patients with adult symptomatic lubmar scoliosis: a prospective multicenter evidence-based study. Spine 2009; 34: 2171-78.]

The most specific disclosure I could find was:
Dr Lenke was a consultant for Medtronic until January, 2009, and is a patent holder with Medtronic.
[Silva FE, Lenke LG. Adult degenerative scoliosis: evaluation and management. Neurosurg Focus 2010; 28: 1-10.]

So the more things change, the more they stay the same. Device companies are still paying royalties, sometimes enormous sums, to the surgeons who helped them develop lucrative devices. Many of these surgeons are in practice, and some are prominent academics. The surgeons, and their academic institutions when applicable, do not seem to be going out of their way to reveal these sometimes massive financial relationships to patients, many of whom end up implanted with the very devices that generate these enormous payments. While some of the surgeons and influential academicians and prolific authors, they do not seem to go out of their way to reveal these sometimes massive financial relationships to their audiences and readers, even while touting aggressive, procedure-oriented, device-centric approaches to manage orthopedic problems.

So although the "Sunshine Act" was made part of the US health reform legislation, there is not yet much sunshine out there.  In my humble opinion, at a minimum, physicians should reveal, in detail, all financial relationships that might appear to have a probability of influencing their clinical decision making to the patients for whom such decisions are made.  Physicians should also reveal, in detail, all financial relationships that might appear to have a probability of influencing any related teaching or research. 

Furthermore, as an Institute of Medicine's report on conflicts of interest, which as received strikingly little attention, recommended:
researchers should not conduct research involving human participants if they have a financial interest in the outcome of the research, for example, if they hold a patent on an intervention being tested in a clinical trial.

Also, the report said we need
to develop a new system for funding high-quality accredited continuing medical education that is free of industry influence.

These idealistic recommendations seem a long way from the reality of our currently money-focused system of medical education and research.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if Dr. Rosen would like to join my knuckle dragger society. He is correct in that people will continue to game the system until there are real penalties, and the only penalty that will be understood is jail time and the loss of future job opportunities.

Steve Lucas

Ed H said...

And just as alarming are the lack of penalties (real ones) for those without health care coverage in 2014.

Hmmm. Buy a policy for $1800 per year or pay a penalty of a few hundred dollars knowing you can get coverage at any time.

chad in ohio said...

thanks for referencing the other stories it was a good timeline to follow. Now i want to see the end result