Thursday, December 15, 2011

Medtronic Settles, Yet Again

And the march of legal settlements continues... Circling around the block and coming in front of the viewing stand again is device manufacturer Medtronic. 

The Latest Medtronic Settlement

As Bloomberg reported:
Medtronic (MDT) Inc., the world’s biggest maker of heart rhythm devices, agreed to pay $23.5 million to settle claims it paid kickbacks to doctors who implanted its pacemakers and defibrillators in patients, the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement.

Medtronic agreed yesterday to settle two lawsuits filed in federal courts in California and Minnesota accusing the company of violating the federal False Claims Act by paying physicians $1,000 to $2,000 for each patient who was implanted with one of the company’s devices, according to the Justice Department.

'Patients who rely on their health-care providers to implant vital medical devices expect that those decisions will be made with the patients’ best interests in mind,' Tony West, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Division, said in an e-mailed statement. 'Kickbacks, like those alleged here, distort sound medical judgments with financial incentives paid for by the taxpayers.'

As usual, Medtronic did not admit doing anything wrong:
Medtronic said in an e-mailed statement that it makes no admissions that the studies were 'improper or unlawful.' The company also said it established a reserve for the anticipated payment in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2011.

'We are happy that the investigation is behind us, so we can continue designing and executing clinical trials that generate evidence to improve patient care, outcomes and cost effectiveness,' Marshall Stanton, vice president of clinical research and reimbursement for the cardiac and vascular group....
Previous Legal Settlements by Medtronic
Note that this is not the first time Medtronic has been accused of paying doctors (kickbacks, this time, which seem to be the ethical equivalent of bribes) to use its products. The Bloomberg report also noted:
In 2006, Medtronic agreed to pay $40 million to settle allegations that its Sofamor Danek unit violated state laws and the False Claims Act by paying sham consulting fees and providing lavish trips to doctors who used its products from 1998 to 2003.
Perusing the Medtronic file on Health Care Renewal also showed that Medtronic has had to settle other lawsuits alleging misconduct:

- In 2008, Medtronic subsidiary Kyphon settled a suit for $75 million and signed a corporate integrity agreement for allegations that it defrauded Medicare through a scheme that lead to excessive hospitalization for patients who received the company's spine surgery device (link here)
- In 2010, Medtronic settled multiple civil lawsuits for $268 million for allegations that it marketed an implantable cardiac defibrillator with faulty leads whose failures lead to 13 deaths (link here)

Cases of Apparent Conflicts of Interest Generated by Medtronics' Payments
In fact, paging through the Medtronic file on Health Care Renewal, we also found these cases of apparent conflicts of interest that Medtronic caused by making payments to or otherwise creating financial relationships with:

- FDA advisory board members (2007 link here),
- health care professionals who appeared on public television programs about heart disease and treatments of it (2007 link here),
- members of a non-profit organization which was supposed to guide the FDA regarding drug development  (2007 link here),
- prominent academic orthopedic surgeons who were in positions to influence other physicians' choices of orthopedic devices (2008 link here and 2009 links here, here and here),
- a military surgeon who wrote questionable articles about the supposed virtues of a Medtronic bone growth product (2009 link here),
- a top leader of US Veterans Affairs Department who objected to the appointment of an industry critic as US Surgeon General (2010 link here),
- spine surgeons apparently who could promote Medtronics' spine surgery products in (2010 link here) and who did not disclose all such payments when writing ostensibly scholarly articles on the subject (2010 link here)

So prior to the current settlement for "alleged" kickbacks, Medtronic had a long history of allegations that it had financial relationships with physicians who were in a position to promote the use of its products or its policy interests.

Why the Bad Behavior Continues

The latest settlement by Medtronic illustrates why the anemic approach by US government agencies to health care corporate misbehavior does not deter bad behavior.

- The punishment was a fine not large enough to have any effect on the finances of the corporation.. Such a relatively small financial penalty might just be seen as a cost of doing business by company executives.  (See these comments on the current case by Dr Howard Brody on the Hooked: Ethics, Medicine and Pharma blog.)
-  The punishment was not a result of any specific bad behavior.  In this case, like many others, the corporation did not have to admit to anything.  This leads to the paradox of a punishment meted out for apparently nothing other than "alleged" actions, making it appear that the actual punishment was just a payment by the company to allow it to continue the sorts of actions that were alleged with impunity.  (Such punishments without clear crimes happen all the time in cases affecting the finance sector.  See a federal judge's condemnation of this practice here.) 
-  The punishment seems unrelated to the corporation's historic behavior.  In this case, there was no reference to the company's previous settlements, or the other allegations of questionable payments to physicians and health care decision makers in other circumstances listed above.  (Keep in mind that Health Care Renewal strives to present interesting cases, but does not have the resources to report on every single case of bad behavior by health care organizations.  Hence the list above of apparent bad behavior may not be complete.)
-  The punishment applied to the corporation as a whole, and hence may disadvantage many people, stockholders and corporate employees in particular, who had nothing to do with the alleged bad behavior.  On the other hand, those who authorized, directed, or implemented the bad behavior were not subject to any negative consequences. 

So why on earth would corporate leaders cease bad behavior which could increase revenues short-term and hence increase their compensation (e.g., in 2011, the Medtronic CEO received $9,624,709 according to the 2011 proxy statement), when the likelihood of any negative consequences for them appears to be near zero? 

This would be bad enough if the bad behavior only causes financial disadvantage for stockholders or corporate employees.

However, the bad behavior in question seems to repeatedly involve paying physicians and other health care decision makers in ways likely to influence their decisions in favor of Medtronics' products and corporate well-being.  Making decisions this way, however, is unlikely to be good for patients' and the public's health, as it is likely to lead to excess use of expensive tests and treatments that may have adverse effects, sometimes severe.  Thus patients may suffer unnecessary morbidity and mortality, and the public at large may pay far too much for medical care.

So will we see in our lifetimes honest, tough policing of health care corporate behavior?  Will the punishments start to fit the crime, and will they be significant enough to deter future misbehavior?  Why do we continue to accept government actions that seem more solicitous of the executives of big corporations than the public for whose benefit government is supposed to be run?  Where is the outrage?   

So, once more, with feeling.... in my humble opinion, until the people responsible for the bad behavior experience negative consequences from that behavior, they will continue to perform, direct, and condone bad behavior. We will not achieve real health care reform in the US until we effectively deter unethical, self-serving behavior by leaders of health care organizations.

ADDENDUM (15 December, 2011) - On the GoozNews blog, Merrill Goozner called Medtronic's actions "a crime against science."

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