Friday, December 17, 2010

Elan, Eisai Settle for Related Reasons

The parade of legal settlements of bad behavior by major health care organizations marches on. The latest to shuffle by are Elan Corp, based in Ireland, and Eisai Inc, based in Japan, for actions taken in the US.  According to Bloomberg:
Elan Corp. will pay $203 million and a U.S. unit of the Irish drugmaker will plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge to resolve an investigation of its marketing of the epilepsy medicine Zonegran.

Elan will pay $102.9 million to resolve civil claims and $100 million in criminal fines and forfeitures, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Japanese drugmaker Eisai Inc., which bought the drug from Elan in 2004 for $128.5 million, also will pay $11 million to settle civil claims.

The Elan Pharmaceuticals unit will plead guilty in federal court in Boston to a charge of misbranding Zonegran, which was approved by U.S. regulators for treatment of epileptic seizures in adults over age 16, the Justice Department said yesterday in a statement. Dublin-based Elan promoted Zonegran for uses including mood stabilization, bipolar disorder, migraine headaches, weight loss and seizures in children.

'Elan’s off-label marketing efforts targeted non-epilepsy prescribers and the company paid illegal kickbacks to physicians in an effort to persuade them to prescribe Zonegran for these off-label uses,' according to the statement.

The details were:
In 2002, EPI [Elan Pharmaceuticals Inc] 'came under significant financial pressure' because of an investigation of its financial practices by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that caused shares to drop to $2 from $65 in six months, according to the criminal charge. In evaluating its options, EPI 'decided to retain Zonegran because of its large potential for growth, particularly in unapproved areas,' prosecutors said.

EPI then trained its sales staff to promote Zonegran for off-label uses, including for children, pain, psychiatric disorders, migraines and movement disorders, prosecutors said. Letters sent to pediatricians described how to administer Zonegran to a child by putting a capsule’s contents into applesauce, according to the document, which EPI will admit to in its guilty plea.

Doctors with the potential to write many prescriptions were invited on expense-paid trips to Bermuda, Key Largo, Florida, Banff in Alberta and Tucson, Arizona, to hear speeches on off- label uses, according to the charge. Sales 'increased dramatically,' rising 80 percent from August 2001 to August 2002, while 2003 revenue increased 87 percent over the previous year, prosecutors said.

So here we ago again, another week, another multi-hundred million dollar settlement. Once again, the settlement is of charges of deceptive marketing practices and kick-backs to physicians. Once again, the settlement involves criminal charges and a corporate integrity agreement, but does not involve any negative consequences for any individual who authorized, directed, or implemented the unethical practices.

We have noted recent cases, one in which a corporate executive was banned from doing business with the federal government, another in which a corporate executive was indicted, but not yet tried on criminal charges.  However, in most cases, the parade of legal settlements made by health care organizations has just marched on, sometimes including guilty pleas to criminal charges, often involving charges of kickbacks, fraud, conspiracy, and other colorful offenses. Most of these settlements entailed fines or other payments by the organizations that may seem huge, but were fractions of the amounts made by the practices that lead to the charges that were settled.  With the few exceptions above, (plus one other known exception, the disbarment from federal business of three former executives of Purdue Pharma, story here), almost never have the cases involved penalties for any individuals who authorized, directed, or implemented the misbehavior.  We have also been saying (seemingly endlessly, but most recently here) that such settlements may be viewed by organizations as merely the costs of doing business, and so until the actual people who were involved in the bad behavior suffer some negative incentive or penalty, expect the behavior to continue. 

Health care costs keep rising, access keeps declining, quality gets worse. We moan and wring our hands, but as long as we allow the rot to worsen, and the muck to grow, expect these trends to continue until the whole smelly mess collapses of its own weight (with all those rich executives escaping to their mansions.)

If we really want high quality accessible, reasonably priced health care, we need true health care reform that reduces concentration of power in large organizations, and makes health care organizations' leadership accountable, ethical, and transparent. That will not be easy.
(FULL DISCLOSURE - I own 3200 shares of Elan.  This is the only health care stock I own.  I have held it a long time, not bothering to sell since the shares have been worth little for years.  This has provided a lesson about how the share-holders of big health care corporations rarely profit from the executives' risk taking.) 

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