Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Abbott Laboratories Settles, Again

In 2007, we discussed a scheme that Abbott Laboratories seemed to be using to boost the price of Kaletra, a combination of two protease inhibitors it markets to treat HIV and AIDS. Kaletra is a combination of rinoavir (Norvir, sold by Abbott as a single drug), and leponavir. Kaletra was apparently losing sales to the combination of Norvir with Reyataz (atazanavir), made by Bristol-Myers-Squibb. So Abbott increased the price of Norvir by 400%.

As reported so far only by Bloomberg, Abbott just settled a class-action lawsuit alleging that its price hike for Norvir was anti-competitive.
Abbott Laboratories agreed to pay $52 million to resolve claims by direct drug buyers that it tried to harm competition when it quadrupled the price of its HIV medicine Norvir in 2003.

The settlement, which is subject to court approval, would resolve a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Abbott customers that purchased Norvir, a boosting agent for other HIV drugs, and a second medicine Kaletra, which includes Norvir, according to an April 8 filing in federal court in Oakland, California. Abbott denied wrongdoing, according to the accord.

Abbott increased the wholesale price of a Norvir capsule containing 100 milligrams to $8.57 from $1.71, the Abbott Park, Illinois-based company said in court documents. GlaxoSmithKline Plc and drug retailers and distributors sued, claiming other drugmakers that used Norvir in their medicines couldn’t compete on price with Kaletra, and the price increase penalized drug customers that wanted to buy medicines that competed with Kaletra.

Note that, as we discussed here, this is the third significant settlement by Abbott in the last six months. In December, 2010, the company settled claims that it defrauded Medicare and Medicaid for $421 million, and claims that a subsidiary paid kickbacks to doctors to sell its products for $41 million. For other discussion of Abbott's recent misbehavior, look here.

So while we were discussing other issues, the parade of legal settlements continued. It is beginning to seem like every major pharmaceutical/ device/ and biotechnology company has settled or pleaded guilty to multiple allegations of significantly bad behavior in the last few years. This suggests how bad the leadership of most of these companies has become.

Nonetheless, in the current case, like nearly all others, the penalties were paid by the companies themselves, not the people who authorized, directed or implemented the bad behavior. We and others have commented repeatedly that the resulting relative impunity of leaders of health care organizations will hardly deter future bad behavior. (Note that this impunity seems similar to that employed by leaders of finance after the global financial collapse/ Great Recession.) Not only do the leaders not pay penalties, but they continue to become hugely rich at the expense of their companies. For example, Abbott CEO Miles D White enjoyed total compensation of $25,564,283 in 2010, down only slightly from the 26,213,996 he received in 2009, according to the 2011 Abbott proxy statement (available here). Threats by government officials to start to employ the "Responsible Corporate Officer Doctrine," (available since 1943) to hold individuals accountable for health care organizations' misdeeds so far appear to be empty (see this post).

So to repeat Cassandra-like,  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.

1 comment:

Afraid said...

You see Roy, you must be wrong about all of this. How could so many pharma companies, hospitals, insurance providers, and device makers be so contemptable?

They each validate their bad behavior by replication. There is no shame angle then and only a very limited enforcement potential. Its kind of like a mass demonstration, the authorities can't arrest them all, and those they do arrest can cry selective enforcement!

About the only way I can see is to boycott the worst, problem is there too, who do you pick, the thieves or the scoundrels?

This whole thing may simply need to burst a bubble before it can be fixed.

I'm at my wits end trying to figure out the angle.