Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Exactech Settles, Its Regional Sales Director Pleads Guilty

The march of legal settlements by health care organizations continues.  Here is a curious story in two parts.  The first part was reported in the most detail by the Gainesville (FL) Sun:
Gainesville-based Exactech must pay $3 million and submit to a year of federal monitoring under a settlement to avoid prosecution on charges that resulted from an investigation into whether orthopedic implant manufacturers were paying kickbacks to surgeons to use their products.

The company announced the deferred prosecution agreement Tuesday after three years of an expanded federal probe.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of New Jersey agrees not to prosecute charges of conspiracy to violate federal anti-kickback laws if the company avoids any violations for a year.

What did Exactech do to wind up in this pickle? It is not really clear. The article noted:
What the U.S. Attorney calls kickbacks Exactech calls consulting fees to surgeons to help develop better products — a common practice in the medical product field.

One can get a little better idea of what was going on by seeing what changes the company agreed to make:
Exactech will continue using surgeons as consultants, but under a more rigorous process that verifies that the work is needed, tracks the surgeons' work and pays them fairly.

The article went out of its way to say:
In accepting the agreement, Exactech does not admit to any wrongdoing and the U.S. Attorney acknowledges that the company's conduct did not hurt patient health or patient care.

Meanwhile, however, a short article appeared in the Parsipanny (NJ) Daily Record:
A salesman from Chester pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate a federal anti-kickback statute by entering into illegal financial deals to get surgeons to use his company's products, the US Attorney's Office said Tuesday.

Douglass Donofrio, 45, director of sales for Exactech Inc.'s northeast region, entered his guilty plea Tuesday before District Judge Garrett E. Brown in Trenton.

Exactech, a publicly traded, Gainesville, Fla.-based national manufacturer and distributor of orthopedic implant devices and supplies, simultaneously agreed to 12-month deal with the justice department to federal monitoring.

'This is a reasonable resolution, giving Exactech credit for positive steps it has taken while requiring continued reform and compliance to avoid more serious consequences,' acting U.S. Attorney Gilmore Childers said in a statement released by his office. 'The agreement does not erase the past, but supports a future corporate culture that will not tolerate kickbacks as business as usual. Unlawful consulting relationships compromise the integrity of our healthcare system, and we will continue to hold institutions and individuals accountable who are willing to put profits over patients.'

Exactech is charged in a criminal court complaint with conspiring to violate the federal anti-kickback statute.

The complaint alleges that from 2002 through late 2008, Exactech entered into consulting agreements with certain orthopedic surgeons — deals which were designed and implemented, in part, to induce the surgeons to use, and cause the purchase of, Exactech's hip and knee reconstruction and replacement products, according to Childers' office.
Note that probably because this case was small in monetary terms, reporting about it was fragmented and brief, making it very difficult to get a sense of what really was going on. 

So, while Exactech did not admit to any wrong-doing, one of its mid-level managers admitted to apparently just the sort of wrong-doing of which the company was accused. If that manager was only a lone loose cannon, why would the company have been pushed to change how it uses surgeon consultants, and why would it need "support" for "a corporate culture that will not tolerate kickbacks as business as usual?"

Nonetheless, only that one mid-level manager admits he did anything wrong.  If anyone else did anything wrong, who they were, and what they did remains unclear, hidden within a swirl of legalese.  Maybe unethical practices occurred, and maybe the new deferred prosecution agreement will prevent further unethical practices, but who can tell? 

If anything unethical did happen, there seems to no longer be any mechanism in health care to find out and  do something about it. 

This case appears to be a good example of how language can be tortured by legalistic parsing that avoids the fundamental ethical problems that now plague health care. As Dr Bernard Carroll posted recently, "legalistic charges and defenses are not the right way to go in exposing and ejecting bad actors from our field," because this approach "favors the bad actors, who flaunt their constitutional protections with the taunt, prove it."  Instead, as Dr Carroll implied, the standard in health care should require more than just avoiding felony convictions.

Even though the current case is small in monetary terms, it is a marker of unethical behavior.  The ongoing parade of legal settlements and criminal pleadings and convictions involving health care organizations, when viewed in its entirety, should convince professionals and policy-makers that health care is undergoing an ethical meltdown. 

The fines imposed by the settlements have never been large enough to be more than costs of doing business, and hence are unlikely to change behavior.  The legalistic approach has not resulted in more than a few people who authorized, directed, or implemented the bad behavior that lead to the settlements paying any personal penalties.  If we want the bad behavior to stop, we clearly need some other way to deter it.  Until we come up with one, expect it to continue, and to continue driving up costs, driving down access, and making patients' outcomes worse.


Chuck said...

would it be illegal for the company to agree to a large termination settlement for the employee who plead guilty? somewhere in the range of millions of dollars to take the fall.

Chuck said...

I have no knowledge of the case, just asking if something like this could happen.

Anonymous said...

Well, these are lawyers, they would never be that obvious. Likly the guilty will be rewarded with a job elsewhere and when that is questioned, the response will be "prove it!"

Lonny said...

In my volunteer work for nonprofit organizations, I make sure that board members understand their responsibilities to the organization and donors. "Piercing the corporate veil" doesn't happen often, but board members should understand that it can happen, and that liability normally assigned to the corporation or its board in a rather anonymous way can in some circumstances be assigned to individual board members as actors. Sounds to me like some well-oiled veil-piercing tactics may be needed here...

Anonymous said...

I have been in the medical device indusrty for 30 years. I accepted a position with Exactech, they paid my relocation from Zimmer holdings in Warsaw Indiana and relocated me to Exactech of Gainesville Florida. I worked for Exactech for 3 years then left the company after noticing their corrupt exchange for favors and under table influences in the medical field. During my 3 years at Exactech Ive seen wide spread upper managment poisoning their mfg workers minds corruption and greed and witnessed first hand the poisonous atmosphere within its offices and leaders.