Sunday, June 06, 2010

Sequenom Executive Pleads Guilty, Banned from Leading Any Public Company (for Misleading Investors About the Performance of a Diagnostic Test?)

We have frequently noted how health care organizations accused of kickbacks, fraud, and other unethical and sometimes potentially illegal behavior involving how they produce or market health care products or services often are allowed to settle the charges only with a fines to the companies, and sometimes with corporate integrity agreements.   

This report from Bloomberg describes a case in which a health care corporation was accused of lying to investors about the performance of a product which it hoped to market. The product was a diagnostic test, and so exaggerating its performance could have affected medical decisions, and hence patients' outcomes, as well as affecting investors' finances. Note how this case was handled.
Elizabeth A. Dragon, former senior vice president of research and development at Sequenom Inc., pleaded guilty today in federal court to conspiracy to commit securities fraud for lying to investors about the company’s prenatal test for Down syndrome, U.S. officials said.

Dragon admitted to making false claims to investors and analysts about the effectiveness of the San Diego-based company’s test as well as attempting to 'inflate and sustain' the price of Sequenom’s shares, said Laura E. Duffy, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California in San Diego, in a statement. Dragon said in a court appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Barbara Major that she and others manipulated data to make the Down syndrome test appear more accurate than it was, Duffy said.

Dragon also was accused of lying to investors in a civil complaint filed today in San Diego by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Dragon settled the claims without admitting or denying wrongdoing and agreed to be barred from serving as an officer or director of a public company, according to the agency’s statement.

Here was how the SEC summed it up:
'Elizabeth Dragon knew the truth about Sequenom’s Down syndrome test, yet she told the public it was a near-perfect success,' Rosalind Tyson, director of the SEC’s Los Angeles office, said in a statement. 'Her actions misled investors with exaggerated information about a significant new product that never materialized.'
What had the company done about this in the past?
In June 2009, the company announced an SEC investigation, and, in September, Sequenom said it dismissed Dragon and Chief Executive Officer Harry Stylli and couldn’t rely on the earlier test results.

And how did it respond to the latest news?
'At this time the company has no comment to make other than we continue to cooperate fully with the government agencies and their investigations,' said Ian Clements, Sequenom’s senior director of corporate communications, in an e-mail.

We have discussed multiple new entrants to the parade of legal settlements by health care organizations. We posted about the most recent entrant here.

It is instructive to compare what happened to the company and personnel involved in that settlement (which happened to be St. Jude Medical) to the events of the current case. As we noted above, when accusations are made about how a company produced or marketed health care products or services, the worst result for the company is usually a fine, rarely amounting to more than a small fraction of the sales of the product or service in question, and sometimes a corporate integrity agreement. Often meanwhile the company may make a statement that it did nothing wrong, and merely settled the case to get on with things.

In the Sequenom case, however, the accusation was of misleading investors (by statements that perhaps just coincidentally could have also misled doctors and patients were the product to have been marketed). The results, however, were that the executives who seemed to be responsible were fired as soon as the government investigation was made known, and a later guilty plea by the executive who seemed most immediately responsible, accompanied by her banning from future service as an "officer or director of a[ny] public company."

It is striking that misleading investors, and thereby potentially endangering their financial health, may result in severe penalties to the individuals involved. However, up to now, misleading doctors or patients, and thereby potentially endangering the former's reputations, and more importantly, the latter's health and even survival, rarely has resulted in any penalties to the individuals involved.

What is wrong with this picture?

If executives who endanger investors' finances can lose their jobs, and be barred from leadership positions in any public company, why can't executives who endanger patients also lose their jobs, and be barred from leadership positions in health care? Inquiring minds would really like to know.

As we have repeated endlessly, the usual sorts of legal settlements we have described do not seem to be an effective way to deter future unethical behavior by health care organizations. Even large fines can be regarded just as a cost of doing business. Furthermore, the fine's impact may be diffused over the whole company, and ultimately comes out of the pockets of stockholders, employees, and customers alike. It provides no negative incentives for those who authorized, directed, or implemented the behavior in question. My refrain has been: we will not deter unethical behavior by health care organizations until the people who authorize, direct or implement bad behavior fear some meaningfully negative consequences. Real health care reform needs to make health care leaders accountable, and especially accountable for the bad behavior that helped make them rich.


Marilyn Mann said...

Did you happen to see this news story?

Perhaps change is coming? We can only hope.

Roy M. Poses MD said...

I did see it. I also hope there might be some new hope for making health care leaders accountable.

I do plan to post something more detailed about this in the near future.

Doug Perednia, MD said...

"If executives who endanger investors' finances can lose their jobs, and be barred from leadership positions in any public company, why => can <= executives who endanger patients also lose their jobs, and be barred from leadership positions in health care? Inquiring minds would really like to know."

Roy - did you mean to say "can't"? in the case of executives endangering patients?

Roy M. Poses MD said...

Doug Perednia MD,

You are right. Sorry about that. The typo has been fixed (see above).