Thursday, October 15, 2015

Phooled Again - More Settlements Suggesting Bad Behavior by Big Pharma/ Biotech

Once again, here is a roundup of cases showing big multi-national pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are up to their usual tricks.

Presented in alphabetical order...

Bristol-Myers Squibb Settles Charges of Bribery of Chinese Hospitals.

The best version of this I could find was in USA Today, in early October, 2015,

Pharmaceutical manufacturer Bristol-Myers Squibb has agreed to pay more than $14 million in fines to settle charges that its joint venture in China paid cash and other benefits to state-owned hospitals in exchange for prescription sales, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced Monday.

After its investigation, the SEC found that the New York-based company violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in its dealings with Chinese hospitals and doctors and 'reaped more than $11 million in profits from its misconduct.'

Bristol-Myers Squibb neither admitted nor denied the findings, the SEC said.

The details, such as they were:

Chinese sales representatives at BMS China, the Chinese joint venture that is majority-owned by Bristol-Myers, paid bribes — including cash, jewelry, meals, travel, entertainment, sponsorships and other gifts — to health care providers between 2009 and 2014 to generate more sales. And Bristol-Myers Squibb 'failed to respond effectively to red flags' indicating such practices, the SEC said.

Apparently, some lower level Chinese employees were fired, although it is not clear whether they were involved in bribery, or in whistle-blowing about it, but top company management did not look too hard to see who might have authorized or directed the bad behavior,

Several BMS China employees who were fired by the company made claims that faked invoices, receipts and purchase orders were widely used to bribe health care providers. But Bristol-Myers Squibb did not investigate their claims, the SEC said.

Bristol-Myers Squibb was aware of improper payments as early as 2009, when an internal audit highlighted the problem. But the company was 'slow to remediate gaps in internal controls' over dealing with Chinese health care providers and monitor payments to them, the SEC said.

Needless to say, no one who might have authorized or directed the bad behavior, and who conceivably might have personally gotten bigger bonuses based on the revenue it brought it, suffered any negative consequences. Despite the settlement, of charges of bribery, no less, company public relations produced the usual,

We have resolved this matter with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, and are committed to the highest standards of business integrity, vigilance and ethics across our organization.

Well then, that clears it up.

I cannot find any information about what BMS allegedly bribed the hospitals to do, and hence can draw no conclusions whether patients may have been harmed by receiving inappropriate medications.

UK Judge Found Pfizer Threatened Health Professionals

The most thorough coverage of this was, amazingly, in a medical journal, namely the British Medical Journal (Kmietowicz A. Pfizer loses UK patent for blockbuster pain drug after threats to doctors.  Brit Med J 2015; 351: h4918.  Link here.)  The background was,

The patent for the use of Lyrica for epilepsy and generalised anxiety disorder expired in July 2014, and manufacturers of generic versions already have licences for these two indications. But the manufacturer, Warner-Lambert (a subsidiary of Pfizer), holds a 'second medical use' patent for the use of pregabalin to treat peripheral and central neuropathic pain, which expires in July 2017. A second medical use patent is one that relates to a new medical use for a known compound.

Lyrica is one of Pfizer’s most successful products, with global sales in 2013 of some $4.6bn (£3bn; €4.1bn).

So apparently Pfizer set out to scare physicians away from prescribing generic pregabalin [generic Lyrica].

In his 174 page ruling Mr Justice Arnold said, 'Since late September 2014, Pfizer has taken extensive steps to try to ensure that generic pregabalin is neither prescribed nor dispensed for the treatment of pain.' This included sending a letter to the BMA and pharmacists stating that doctors and pharmacists risked infringing the patent if they supplied generic pregabalin for the pain indication and that this would be an unlawful act.

A letter sent to clinical commissioning groups in December 2014 was described by Arnold as 'calculated to have a chilling effect on the sales of Lecaent [the version of pregabalin made by Actavis].'

These letters would be seen by the recipients as a threat, said Mr Justice Arnold.

The Justice ultimately "overturned Pfizer's UK patent for pregabalin for pain control," in part because the "company made 'groundless claims' that its patent for Lyrica would be infringed if doctors did not specify Lyrica as opposed to a generic alternative when prescribing...."

This case was apparently only about the patent (and is subject to appeal), so it appears no one who apparently tried to authorize, direct or implement apparent intimidation of health care professionals with "groundless threats" will suffer any negative consequences.

This case does not seem to involve any obvious harms to patients.  However, "groundless threats" to health care professionals could have obviously demoralized them and clearly challenged their autonomy and professional values.

Sanofi Again Settles Charges of Misbranding Seprafilm

We discussed the first civil settlement the company made of this case in 2014 here.  A relatively clear summary of the new settlement was given by Reuters in September, 2015.

Genzyme Corp agreed to pay $32.59 million, admit wrongdoing and enter a deferred prosecution agreement to resolve U.S. criminal charges over its marketing of the surgical implant Seprafilm, the Department of Justice said on Thursday.

The biotechnology unit of French drug company Sanofi SA (SASY.PA) was accused of two misdemeanor counts of violating the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act from 2005 to 2010 by allowing Seprafilm to be adulterated and misbranded while being sold. Sanofi bought Genzyme in 2011.

Seprafilm is a clear film used to reduce abnormal internal scarring that can cause organs and tissues to stick together following pelvic and abdominal surgeries known as laparotomies.

But the Justice Department said some sales representatives taught surgeons how to turn Seprafilm into a 'slurry' for use in increasingly popular laparoscopic surgery, even though U.S. regulators had never approved the film for that use.

According to papers filed with the federal court in Tampa, Florida, Genzyme admitted and accepted responsibility for the facts underlying the two criminal counts.

The two-year deferred prosecution agreement calls for improved oversight, and steps to halt Seprafilm sales for off-label uses. If Genzyme complies, the government will dismiss the charges.

Note that at least in this case, there was some admission by the company of the truth of the facts charged, and no protestation that "we adhere to the highest standards of integrity," or some such.

It seems possible that the use of the Seprafilm slurry in patients without clear evidence of its safety or effectiveness may have lead to patient harms, but I cannot find clear discussion of this.


So while big health care corporations, especially large drug and biotechnology companies, are always protesting how their main goal is to benefit patients, and how they support health care professionals, here are more cases in which it appears they at best set out to manipulate patients and health care professionals to maximize revenue.

Note that this is hardly the first time any of these companies have apparently misbehaved.  See our previous posts on BMS, on Genzyme (now a Sanofi subsidiary), and on Pfizer.  Note that our last discussion of the ever troubled Pfizer was only one month ago.

We have discussed endlessly how the march of legal settlements and other legal rulings affecting big health care corporations has raised questions about whether they are in it for patients and health care professionals, or just for the money.  That almost none of these legal actions has resulted in any real consequences for the individuals within the corporations who profited most from the misbehavior has allowed health care corporate managers' continued impunity, and has suggested how cozy health care corporate managers and goverment regulators and law enforcement officials have become, partially through the mechanism of the revolving door.

While these latest three cases have appeared, the mainstream media have begun to feature more discussion about how widespread managerial and corporate misbehavior is fueling the decline of the global economy, and perhaps of global society.  For example, as discussed in srticles in The Guardian, and more recently in the New York Times, Nobel Prize winners Robert Shiller and George Akerlof's new book, Phishing for Pfools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception, suggests that widespread bad behavior in supposedly "free," and mainly unregulated markets can cause all sorts of evil.  In the Guardian, Shiller used the examples of how

 Most of us have suffered 'phishing': unwanted emails and phone calls designed to defraud us.  A 'phool' is anyone who does not fully comprehend the ubiquity of fishing.  A phool sees isolated examples of phishing, but does not appreciate the extent of professionalism devoted to it, nor how deeply this professionalism affects lives.  Sadly, a lot of us have been phools - including Akerlof and me, which is why we wrote this book

As Shiller wrote in the NYT, while he is a "free market advocate,"

we both believe that standard economic theory is typically overenthusiastic about unregulated free markets. It usually ignores the fact that, given normal human weaknesses, an unregulated competitive economy will inevitably spawn an immense amount of manipulation and deception.

Shiller and Akerlof believe that various kinds of manipulation and deception are enabled by technological advances, and that they are contagious,

When you realize that your competitor has used sophisticated and effective marketing tricks, then you will fall behind if you don’t follow suit.

This is really not a new idea,

In 1918, Irving Fisher, the Yale economist, argued that what people maximize in their actions is something that could better be described as 'wantability' rather than utility, for they are subject to temptation and mistakes in the vast array of purchases they make, leading profit-maximizing marketers to take advantage of them on a systematic basis.

In the first half of the 20th century, such critiques were of general interest. But they are little discussed today.

In the Guardian, Shiller warned that failure to address this problem in the financial sector could lead to "a new Dark Age." I fear that we are already close to a dark age for health care.

Similarly, in the Wall Street Journal, of all places, Charles Moore, the authorized biographer of Margaret Thatcher, and former editor of the conservative UK Daily Telegraph, wrote:

The relationship between money and morality, on which the middle-class order depends, has been seriously compromised over the past decade.  Which means that the mass bourgeoisie (a phrase that Marx and Engles would have thought a contradiction in terms) start to feel like the new proletariat.


To the extent that people cheat in markets, they are not real markets, any more than antifreeze labeled 'wine' is real wine.  Too many advocates of markets have allowed themselves to be suborned into becoming apologists for business.  And too many businesses now operate as if their responsibilities are only to themselves and not to consumers.

See the above examples, and all we have written about bribery, kick-backs, fraud, other crime, and corruption to show how prevalent cheating is in health care.

Shiller concluded,

Marx did have an insight about the disproportionate power of the ownership of capital. The owner of capital decides where money goes, whereas the people who sell only their labor lack that power. This makes it hard for society to be shaped in their interests. In recent years, that disproportion has reached destructive levels, so if we don’t want to be a Marxist society, we need to put it right.

I would add that if we do not put these things right in health care, ending up with a Marxist system will be the least of our worries.

So as a start, to quote Shiller, we need more

heroic effortsw of campaigners for better values, both among private organizations and advocates of government regulation

Who will step up?

Our musical diversion, "Won't Get Fooled Again," the Who, 1978 live version:

1 comment:

afraid said...

Indeed who will step up, for real, is the question. Lots may step up to use our broken healthcare system to further their own self interest. But who will step up and do the right thing even though it hurts them?