Monday, July 19, 2010

Prosecuting Doctors for Importing IUDs from Canada, but Still No Penalties for Selling Adulterated Heparin from China

Here in Rhode Island, the big health care story recently was the use of unapproved intra-uterine devices (IUDs) by some local obstetrician-gynecologists (OB-GYNs).  The first nuanced summary of the story which just appeared in the Providence Journal, written by Felice Freyer, suggested how the consequences of possible misconduct in health care depend on the clout of those involved.

The Unapproved IUDs

Here are the main points. The issue that caused so much local controversy was the use of unapproved IUDs:
Ten Rhode Island medical groups with 28 doctors told the Health Department that they bought IUDs, a form of birth control, from a foreign source, at prices about half what they had to pay for IUDs approved for use in the United States. Many had stopped using the unapproved devices long before the Health Department began its investigation in June.

Here is what we know about the actual devices they implanted:

An IUD is a T-shaped device that can fit in the palm of a woman’s hand. To prevent pregnancy, doctors insert it into the uterus, where it can stay for years. There are two types available in the United States: the ParaGard copper IUD and the Mirena hormonal IUD. Mirena, the more costly and more popular brand, has a coating of a progesterone-like drug that reduces heavy menstrual bleeding.
Unapproved IUDs Made by an American Company in Finland and Sold in Canada

Most of the "unapproved devices" the doctors were using were apparently made in Finland by an American company.
In most cases, the doctors were using Mirena, which is made at a factory in Finland by an American company, Bayer Healthcare Pharmaceuticals. Only when it comes through approved channels can doctors and patients be assured that a product meets FDA standards. But it is unclear whether Bayer –– or anyone –– makes a version of Mirena that does not meet those standards.
The doctors imported the devices from far-away, exotic Canada.
Most of the devices apparently came from Canada, where the government negotiates with drug and device makers to keep prices low.

There is no reason to suspect the devices were counterfeit, or defective.
'If they’re really from Canada and from a reputable pharmacy, it should be exactly the same thing [as the FDA-approved version],' said Sheryl Ruzek, a retired public health professor at Temple University and vice chair of the board of the ECRI Institute, a nonprofit organization that evaluates medical procedures and products. 'My hunch is the patients were not harmed,' she said.
Potential Negative Consequences for the Physicians

However, the RI physicians are in big trouble for importing them:
In Rhode Island, the state boards that regulate physicians, nurses and nurse-midwives are investigating all those involved. If any are found guilty of unprofessional conduct, they could face disciplinary action such as a reprimand or license suspension. The state attorney general’s office has a Medicaid fraud unit, but declined to comment. The U.S. Attorney also had no comment.
US doctors in other states have also been importing IUDs, and also are in big trouble:
So many doctors were importing IUDs or considering doing so that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recently took an official stand, issuing an advisory opposing the use of imported devices.

In 2006, the California Department of Health found that eight doctors had used imported IUDs in some 850 women.

In October 2009, an Arkansas doctor was indicted by a federal grand jury for using non-FDA-approved versions of Mirena. He was charged with violation of the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, health-care fraud (for allegedly billing Medicaid for the unapproved devices) and money-laundering (for the way he allegedly handled Medicaid reimbursements). The doctor, Kelly Dean Shrum, has not yet come to trial, but potential penalties include fines and imprisonment.

Summary, and the Contrast with the Case of the Adulterated, Fatal Heparin
So to summarize, doctors who imported IUDs from Canada that appeared to be identical to those sold with FDA approval in the US, and were made in Finland by an American company at the same factory in which the US approved IUDs were made have gotten into major trouble with state and federal authorities. There is no clear evidence that the IUDs caused any harm to patients.

I am not defending the doctors' actions. However, contrast the treatment they are likely to receive with another case we have frequently discussed.

We last blogged about the case of Baxter International's adulterated heparin here.  In summary, Baxter International imported the "active pharmaceutical ingredient" (API) of heparin, that is, in plainer language, the drug itself, from China.  That API was then sold, with some minor processing, as a Baxter International product with a Baxter International label.  The drug came from a sketchy supply chain that Baxter did not directly supervise, apparently originating in small "workshops" operating under primitive and unsanitary conditions without any meaningful inspection or supervision by the company, the Chinese government, or the FDA.  The heparin proved to have been adulterated with over-sulfated chondroitin sulfate (OSCS), and many patients who received got seriously ill or died.  While there have been investigations of how the adulteration adversely affected patients, to date, there have been no publicly reported investigations of how the OSCS got into the heparin, and who should have been responsible for overseeing the purity and safety of the product.  Despite the facts that clearly patients died from receiving this adulterated drug, no individual has yet suffered any negative consequence for what amounted to poisoning of patients with a brand-name but adulterated pharmaceutical product.

Yet everyone from state health departments to the federal authorities have jumped into the case of the unapproved IUDs imported, but from Canada, and apparently identical to the IUDs sold in the US.  There is, at least so far, no evidence that the IUDs were defective or dangerous, and no evidence they have harmed patients.  One doctor has been prosecuted for violating the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and for health care fraud and money-laundering.  No one working for Baxter International (or for the identified organizations within its supply chain) has been prosecuted for anything.

What the...?   I do not object to discipline and prosecution of individual doctors who appear to have broken the law.  But why are we so vigorously pursuing individual doctors for an apparently technical violation of laws that did patients no apparent harm, when we are not pursuing health care corporate executives for selling adulterated drugs that likely killed patients? 

F Scott Fitzergald wrote that the "very rich are different from you and me," and it appears that very rich health care leaders have impunity when it comes to conduct that let patients be harmed and die. 

Real health care reform would make top health care leaders as accountable as we now make individual doctors.

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