Archive for the ‘Pharmaceutical industry’ Category

China’s Familiar Charges Against Glaxo

Thursday, July 18th, 2013

big-pharma-pills-and-moneyGlobal corporations piously claim to adhere to the laws of the countries in which they do business, knowing full well that those laws in many places are weak or are not rigorously enforced.

It’s thus amusing to see British drug giant GlaxoSmithKline squirm in the face of corruption charges unexpectedly brought by the Chinese government. GSK purports to be shocked by allegations that its Chinese executives used funds laundered through travel agencies to bribe doctors, hospitals and public officials to purchase more of its products. The company insists that it has zero tolerance for such behavior and that a recent internal investigation had found no evidence of corruption  in its Chinese operations.

These protestations are as unconvincing as the Chinese government’s claims that it is simply enforcing the law—as opposed to giving its emerging pharmaceutical  industry a leg up. GSK’s alleged transgressions are little different from the practices that it and the rest of Big Pharma employ around the world.

Take the United States. In recent years, GSK has become known as the company that pays massive amounts to resolve wide-ranging allegations brought by regulators and prosecutors.

Some of those charges involved payments very much like the ones it is being accused of making in China. GSK was charged with giving kickbacks to doctors and other health professionals to prescribe drugs such as the anti-depressants Paxil and Wellbutrin for unapproved (and possibly dangerous) purposes.  Payments also went to figures such as radio personality Drew Pinsky, who was given $275,000 by the company to promote Wellbutrin on his program.

The kickback allegations were among the charges covered by a $3 billion settlement GSK reached with the U.S. Justice Department in 2012. Also included in the deal were accusations that GSK withheld crucial safety data on its diabetes medication Avandia from the Food & Drug Administration and that it defrauded government healthcare programs in its pricing practices.

These safety and pricing matters were the culmination of years of controversy surrounding GSK and its predecessor companies. The safety issues dated back at least to the 1950s, when Smith, Kline & French was among the firms linked to Thalidomide and its horrible legacy of birth defects.

Until it was sold off in the late 1980s, Glaxo’s infant formula business, like that of Nestle, was accused of undermining public health in the third world by marketing the powder to women who were so poor that they tended to dilute the formula to the point that it lost its nutritional potency.

In the 1980s, SmithKline Beckman was the target of a rare criminal case brought under U.S. drug laws for failing to warn regulators and the public about the potentially lethal side effects of its blood pressure medication Selacryn.

Later years saw frequent charges that GSK suppressed evidence about the dangers of Paxil, especially in children. There were also many cases involving pricing abuses, including one in which GSK paid $150 million to resolve allegations of violating the federal False Claims Act in its dealings with Medicare and Medicaid.

Unlike many corporate settlements, GSK’s $3 billion deal with the feds required it to plead guilty to several criminal counts. It also had to sign a Corporate Integrity Agreement with the Department of Health and Human Services.

In other words, the company is in effect on parole and subject to heightened scrutiny. The Chinese accusations seem to point to a big, fat violation of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. That would jeopardize GSK’s settlement and subject it to new penalties and sanctions.

Foreign corporations have long taken advantage of China’s lax regulatory system. Now that the People’s Republic is (selectively) cracking down, a company such as GSK deserves no sympathy.

The Golden Gag and Other Sins of Novartis

Thursday, February 21st, 2013

vasellaNovartis raked in more than $12 billion in profits last year, but it was a planned expenditure of $78 million that prompted an uprising by the Swiss drug giant’s shareholders and compelled the company’s management to make an embarrassing about-face. The reason is that the $78 million was an unwarranted giveaway to the retiring chairman.

In January, Novartis announced that Daniel Vasella (photo) would leave the company after serving in top positions for the past 17 years. Vasella had already been granted more than $12 million in retirement benefits after he gave up the chief executive’s post in 2010 while staying on the board of directors as chairman with another $12 million in additional annual compensation. That payout was highly controversial, coming after years of fat CEO paychecks for Vasella.

It also set the stage for the current scandal, which grew out of a plan to pay Vasella not to work for another pharmaceutical company for the next six years. The non-competition agreement is referred to in the European press as a “golden gag” arrangement.

The pent up anger against Vasella was obvious in the reaction to the announcement. The corporate accountability group Ethos called on shareholders to withhold their support for the re-election of members of the board’s compensation committee. One Swiss official denounced the payment, saying “it does huge damage to the social cohesion in our country.” A lawyer in Zurich filed a criminal complaint against Novartis, the compensation committee and Vasella for breach of trust and lying to shareholders. A public statement by Vasella that he would donate the money to charity did little to quell the uproar.

The subsequent decision by Novartis to drop the plan was a significant victory for corporate accountability activists and critics of excessive executive and director pay, who have been targeting bloated compensation not only at Novartis but also at other large Swiss companies.

What’s ironic, however, is that this planned parting payment to Vasella generated a lot more controversy than other, arguably more serious sins of the company during his tenure, especially those committed in its U.S. operations.

For example, in 2010 Novartis had to pay $422 million to U.S. authorities to resolve criminal and civil liability arising from charges that it engaged in illegal marketing of its epilepsy drug Trileptal, including the payment of kickbacks to doctors to get them to prescribe the medication for off-label and potentially dangerous purposes.

That same year, Eon Laboratories, a Novartis subsidiary, agreed to pay $3.5 million to settle allegations that it violated the U.S. False Claims Act by submitting inaccurate reports to the federal government that obscured the fact that the Food and Drug Administration had found that the company’s Nitroglycerin Sustained Release capsules lacked substantial evidence of effectiveness.

In 2005 a Novartis U.S. unit, OPI Properties, had agreed to pay $49.2 million in civil and criminal fines and be excluded from federal healthcare contracts to resolve charges relating to its improper marketing of nutritional products to the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

In 2005 a group of women who had worked as sales representatives for Novartis in the United States filed a lawsuit against the company, saying they were discriminated against in pay and promotions, especially after becoming pregnant. In 2010 a federal jury ruled in favor of the women, awarding them $3.3 million in compensatory damages and $250 million in punitive damages. Novartis appealed and then settled the case for $152 million.

Novartis has also been at the center of a worldwide controversy over the pricing of its cancer medication Gleevec (Glivec in Europe), a year’s supply of which in the early 2000s was priced at about $27,000. Novartis sought to quiet the criticism by promising to give the drug away to many of those who could not afford it, but in 2003 it was reported that the effort was falling far short of expectations.

Novartis later found itself in a battle with the Indian government, which rejected the company’s patent application for Gleevec as part of its effort to encourage the production of low-cost generic drugs for poor countries. A wide range of non-governmental organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, called on Novartis to drop its suit, which was heard by the Indian Supreme Court in 2012.

Novartis was right to cancel its big giveaway to Vasella, but the company has a lot more to answer for.

Note: The latest addition to my Corporate Rap Sheets collection is dossier number 41, describing the track record of another ethically challenged Swiss company, Credit Suisse.

Pfizer’s Long Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

The Dirt Diggers Digest is taking a break from commentary for the Thanksgiving holiday, but the Corporate Rap Sheets project marches on. I’ve just posted a dossier on drug giant Pfizer. Here is its introduction:

Pfizer made itself the largest pharmaceutical company in the world in large part by purchasing its competitors. In the last dozen years it has carried out three mega-acquisitions: Warner-Lambert in 2000, Pharmacia in 2003, and Wyeth in 2009.

Pfizer has also grown through aggressive marketing—a practice it pioneered back in the 1950s by purchasing unprecedented advertising spreads in medical journals. In 2009 the company had to pay a record $2.3 billion to settle federal charges that one of its subsidiaries had illegally marketed a painkiller called Bextra. Along with the questionable marketing, Pfizer has for decades been at the center of controversies over its pricing, including a price-fixing case that began in 1958.

In the area of product safety, Pfizer’s biggest scandal involved defective heart valves sold by its Shiley subsidiary that led to the deaths of more than 100 people. During the investigation of the matter, information came to light suggesting that the company had deliberately misled regulators about the hazards. Pfizer also inherited safety and other legal controversies through its big acquisitions, including a class action suit over Warner-Lambert’s Rezulin diabetes medication, a big settlement over PCB dumping by Pharmacia, and thousands of lawsuits brought by users of Wyeth’s diet drugs.

Also on Pfizer’s list of scandals are a 2012 bribery settlement; massive tax avoidance; and lawsuits alleging that during a meningitis epidemic in Nigeria in the 1990s the company tested a risky new drug on children without consent from their parents.

READ THE ENTIRE PFIZER RAP SHEET HERE.

The Deadly Consequences of Weak Regulation

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Unfortunately, it seems to take a public health crisis for the United States to remember the importance of diligently regulating companies such as drugmakers and food processors. And it is only during such crises that people realize that, despite the whines of corporate-friendly politicians, our problem is that such businesses are regulated too little rather than too much.

This scenario is being played out yet again in the fungal meningitis outbreak that has stricken more than 240 people and killed at least 20 of them around the country. It was only once the bodies began piling up that it became widely known that there has been confusion as to whether state or federal agencies should be overseeing operations such as the New England Compounding Center (NECC), which has been blamed for shipping tens of thousands of contaminated syringes with steroids used by patients with severe pain.

It turns out that the federal Food and Drug Administration had been keeping an eye on NECC, and in December 2006 the agency sent it and several similar companies a warning letter about distributing topical anesthetic creams without federal approval. An FDA press release about the warnings noted that exposure to high concentrations of local anesthetics can cause grave reactions and had in fact been linked to two deaths of users of the creams produced by one of the five firms. The NECC letter also mentioned concerns about the company’s practices related to the repackaging of Avastin, an injectable drug for treating colorectal cancer.

It’s not clear that the FDA letters had any impact. The compounding pharmacies paid little attention, given that a federal judge had previously issued a ruling calling into question the authority of the agency to regulate their business. Supposedly, state pharmacy boards are taking care of the matter.  One gets an idea of how serious that is from a Boston Globe story revealing that one of the members of the Massachusetts board is an executive with Ameridose, a compounding pharmacy also owned by NECC principals Barry Cadden and Gregory Conigliaro.

What makes companies such as NECC and Ameridose, both of which have suspended operations, even more dangerous is that they are privately held and thus have to disclose a lot less information about their operations. What they do reveal tends to be self-serving accounts of their supposed commitment to corporate social responsibility. The NECC website now consists solely of its “voluntary” recall, but the full Ameridose site is still up and has a less-than-hard-hitting news section.

There are numerous press releases about the company’s “outstanding” sustainability program, especially its recycling of cardboard and its installation of an ultrasonic humidification system. There are also releases about the company’s participation in a holiday food drive and its sponsorship of several industry conferences.

These are no doubt worthwhile initiatives, but the public might have also wanted to know how Ameridose was dealing with issues such as a 2008 FDA inspection that found that the company had been shipping products before it receive the results of sterility tests. That year Ameridose also had to recall some of its Fentanyl product.

The problems at Ameridose apparently went much deeper. According to reporting by the New York Times, employees at the firm expressed concern to management about serious safety and quality control issues but were rebuffed. One worker was quoted as saying: “The emphasis was always on speed, not on doing the job right.”

NECC and Ameridose are the kinds of companies lionized by Republican politicians preoccupied with defending “job creators” against government incursions in their business. It thus comes as no surprise that a search of the Open Secrets database shows that Conigliaro has contributed four times to Scott Brown’s Senate race in Massachusetts and has given $2,500 to Mitt Romney.

These firms are also among those government-dependent companies not singled out by Romney for mooching. Aside from the portion of their business covered by programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, the USA Spending database shows that Ameridose has received more than $800,000 in contracts from the federal government. In June, the U.S. Army signed an exclusive, five-year purchasing agreement with the firm to supply specialized compounded products for the pediatric intensive care unit at the Army’s Tripler Medical Center in Honolulu.

So the next time a politician complains about excessive regulation, we should keep in mind the risk to that pediatric intensive care unit and the actual harm caused to the meningitis victims.

—————-

New in CORPORATE RAP SHEETS: Dossiers on the no-longer-merging military contracting and aerospace giants BAE Systems and EADS.

Corporate Greed is the Real Threat to Medicare

Thursday, August 16th, 2012

Now that fiscal hatchet man Paul Ryan is on the Republican ticket, the presidential race has turned into a free-for-all over the future of Medicare.

Recognizing the unpopularity of their goal of slashing entitlement spending, Ryan and Romney are instead straining credulity by painting themselves as defenders of Medicare against $700 billion in cuts scheduled under the Affordable Care Act.

This, of course, is a reprise of the tactic long used by opponents of healthcare reform of deliberately conflating Obamacare’s negotiated cuts in payments to healthcare providers with cuts in actual services to seniors.

Such obfuscation can have some success because most people continue to view Medicare solely as a government social program, when it is also a massive system of contracts that transfer more than $500 billion in taxpayer funds each year to the private sector. Medicare took the profit out of providing health insurance to seniors but it left untouched the profit motive in the delivery of their medical services. In fact, Medicare’s billions have played a central role in building the commercial healthcare industry into the leviathan it is today.

Not content with making a reasonable amount of money from serving this huge market legitimately, providers regularly try to bilk the system for more than what they are entitled to. This is not just a matter of the proverbial Medicare mills in which individual physicians or small operations charge for services provided to imaginary patients or else overbill when treating real ones.

Some of the biggest instances of Medicare fraud have been perpetuated by Fortune 500 companies such as for-profit hospital operators, medical device manufacturers and pharmaceutical producers.

Let’s start with the drugmakers, since they have been at the center of several recent cases involving the illegal marketing of their pills for unapproved purposes, which among other things results in more high-priced medications getting prescribed for Medicare patients, thus inflating system costs. A few weeks ago, Glaxo SmithKline agreed to pay $3 billion to resolve federal criminal and civil charges relating to the improper marketing of its best-selling anti-depressants.

In May, Abbott Laboratories agreed to pay $1.5 billion to settle similar charges relating to the off-label marketing of its drug Depakote. Although Depakote was approved only for treating seizures, Abbott created a special sales force to pressure physicians to use it for controlling agitation and aggression in elderly dementia patients. This was both a safety risk and an added financial burden for Medicare and Medicaid. Illegal marketing charges had previously been settled with companies such as Novartis, AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Eli Lilly—in other words, pretty much the whole industry.

Medical device makers also contribute to escalating Medicare costs by pressing doctors to use their expensive products in place of cheaper alternatives or perhaps when they are not really medically necessary. Last December, Medtronic paid $23.5 million to resolve federal charges that it paid illegal kickbacks to physicians to induce them to implant the company’s pacemakers and defibrillators. Several months earlier, Guidant paid $9 million to settle federal charges of having inflated the cost of replacement pacemakers and defibrillators for Medicare and Medicaid patients.

And then we have the for-profit hospitals. A decade ago, HCA, one of the pioneers of the industry and still its biggest player, paid a total of $1.7 billion in fines in connection with charges that it defrauded Medicare and other federal health programs through a variety of overbilling schemes. Chief executive Rick Scott—now the Republican governor of Florida—was ousted but managed to avoid prosecution.

It now looks HCA is at it again. The New York Times just published a front-page exposé of how the company—now controlled by a group of private equity firms including Bain Capital—is making fat profits through “aggressive” billing of Medicare as well as private insurers. The Times reported that HCA’s tactics are now “under scrutiny” by the Justice Department.

The debate over Medicare’s supposedly out-of-control costs is surprisingly devoid of discussion of how much of the problem is the result of aggressive billing or outright fraud by the likes of HCA, the device makers and the pharmaceutical producers. Seniors cannot be expected to suffer cuts in their benefits as long as the giant corporate healthcare providers continue to gouge the system.

Will Big Pharma Remain Above the Law?

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

The recent announcement that a corporation agreed to pay $1.6 billion to settle regulatory violations would normally be considered significant news, but because the company involved was a drugmaker there was not much of a stir. That’s because Abbott Laboratories is only the latest in a series of pharmaceutical producers to pay nine- and ten-figure amounts to settle charges that they engaged in illegal marketing practices.

Abbott’s deal with federal and state prosecutors involves Depakote, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat seizures but which Abbott was charged with promoting for unauthorized uses such as schizophrenia and for controlling agitation in elderly dementia patients. The company admitted that for eight years it maintained a specialized sales force to market Depakote to nursing homes for the latter unauthorized use. In other words, it systematically violated FDA rules and encouraged doctors and nursing homes to use the drug in potentially unsafe ways.

Abbott follows in the footsteps of other industry violators:

  • In November 2011 GlaxoSmithKline agreed to pay $3 billion to settle various federal investigations, including one involving the illegal marketing of its diabetes drug Avandia.
  • In September 2010 Novartis agreed to pay $422 million to settle charges that it had illegally marketed its anti-seizure medication Trileptal and five other drugs.
  • In April 2010 AstraZeneca agreed to pay $520 million to settle charges relating to the marketing of its schizophrenia drug Seroquel.
  • In September 2009 Pfizer agreed to pay $2.3 billion to settle charges stemming from the illegal promotion of its anti-inflammatory drug Bextra prior to its being taken off the market entirely because of concerns that it was unsafe for any use.
  • In January 2009 Eli Lilly agreed the pay $1.4 billion—then the largest individual corporate criminal fine in the history of the U.S. Justice Department—for illegal marketing of its anti-psychotic drug Zyprexa.

The wave of off-label marketing settlements began in 2004, when Pfizer agreed to pay $430 million to resolve criminal and civil charges brought against Warner-Lambert (which Pfizer had acquired four years earlier) for providing financial inducements and otherwise encouraging doctors to prescribe its epilepsy drug Neurontin for other unapproved uses.

Soon just about every drugmaker of significance ended up reaching one of these agreements with prosecutors and shelled out what appeared to be hefty penalties. In fact, the amounts were modest in comparison to the potential revenue the companies could rake in by selling the drugs for uses far beyond what the FDA review process had deemed safe. A 2009 investigation by David Evans of Bloomberg noted that the $2.3 billion penalty Pfizer paid in connection with Bextra was only 14 percent of the $16.8 billion in revenue it had enjoyed from that drug over the previous seven years.

The company’s 2004 settlement should have been a deterrent against further off-label marketing, but, according to Bloomberg, Pfizer went right on doing it. Seeking maximum sales, regardless of restrictions set by the FDA, was an ingrained part of the company’s modus operandi. When the 2009 settlement was announced, John Kopchinski, a former Pfizer sales rep turned whistleblower, was quoted as saying: “The whole culture of Pfizer is driven by sales, and if you didn’t sell drugs illegally, you were not seen as a team player.”

Compared to other forms of corporate misconduct, such as securities violations, the drug companies are much more likely to have to admit to criminal violations in the off-label marketing cases. And the penalties are far larger than those imposed for most environmental and labor violations.

Yet these seemingly harsher enforcement practices appear not to have been very effective in putting an end to the illegal activity. In fact, the willingness of the drug industry to flout the drug safety laws raises serious questions about the effectiveness of FDA regulations and the federal criminal justice system in general. If a group of companies know that they can repeatedly break the rules and face consequences that fall far short of the potential gains from the illegal behavior, enforcement has little meaning.

What makes the situation even more outrageous is that off-label market is just one of numerous ways that the drug industry regularly violates the law—whether by defrauding federal programs such as Medicare or by covering up safety risks related to the approved uses of certain drugs.

The one thing that makes drug industry executives a bit nervous is that federal prosecutors have begun to show interest in reviving what is known as the responsible corporate officer doctrine, a provision of U.S. food and drug laws that could be used to hold executives personally and criminally responsible for violations. So far, the doctrine has been applied to only a few small fish. But if Big Pharma CEOs start appearing in perp walks, the industry may finally realize it is not above the law.