It’s no secret that many pharmaceutical drugs have life-threatening side effects, but oftentimes they aren’t discussed when the medication is being prescribed to the patient. It’s important that, when taking any pharmaceutical drug, you weigh the pros and cons of taking the drug, because when it comes to pharmaceuticals, the benefits don’t always outweigh the risks.
Sometimes, the wrong drugs will be prescribed to patients, but it isn’t very often that Big Pharma companies get caught literally conspiring to do so. Pharmaceutical company Insys Therapeutics is currently under investigation for making it look like patients had cancer (when they did not) so they could sell their opioid drugs to them.
The Big Pharma corporation used a variety of tactics to trick both medical staff and patients, including falsifying medical records, misleading insurance companies, and bribing doctors, all of which is outlined in a federal indictment on the United States Department of Justice website.
Shortly after Insys was given approval to sell their opioid drug, they found one very significant problem. Their drug, a sprayable form of fentanyl called Subsys, was designed to treat cancer patients with acute pain. However, they soon found that their market of cancer patients wasn’t quite big enough to match their profit goals, so they started falsifying information to make it look like patients had cancer so they could sell more of their drug.
The U.S. Department of Justice document reads:
Several pharmaceutical executives and managers, formerly employed by Insys Therapeutics, Inc., were arrested today on charges that they led a nationwide conspiracy to bribe medical practitioners to unnecessarily prescribe a fentanyl-based pain medication and defraud healthcare insurers.
Whenever someone needed prior authorization for Subsys, instead of someone from an actual doctor’s office calling the insurance companies, an Insys employee would. The insurance companies were tricked into thinking that they were talking to someone qualified, as Insys employees had a very strategically worded script to give them that impression and would hide their caller ID.
The most crucial element of their scheme surrounded the question of whether the patient had acute pain caused by cancer, referred to as “breakthrough pain.” Subsys is a drug for cancer patients, and so insurance companies needed to ensure that the patient indeed had cancer. Insys would strategically answer this question by implying that the patient had cancer without specifically saying so.
The authorities have a recording of such a call, which is frankly astonishing to listen to. It’s easy to see how the Insys employees got around answering this question but still made it seem like the patient had “breakthrough pain” from cancer.
You can listen to that recording here, which involves a conversation between an Insys employee and an insurance company regarding a New Jersey patient named Sarah Fuller, who was not diagnosed with cancer but was still prescribed Subsys by her doctor. Fuller actually passed away of a Subsys overdose, and her doctor’s license is currently in the process of being suspended.
You can hear the Insys employee stating that Subsys is “intended for the management of breakthrough cancer pain” without actually stating that the patient herself has cancer. The Insys employee also explains that Fuller experiences “breakthrough pain,” but doesn’t actually say the word “cancer.” It’s tricky wording like this that leads the insurance representatives to believe that the patient has cancer, when in reality they don’t.
This fraud and corruption is not going to be swept under the rug, though. Six former Insys higher-ups and employees have already been charged, including the former CEO, with fraud and racketeering crimes in relation to the drug Subsys.
Prosecutors described the situation as a “nationwide conspiracy to bribe medical practitioners to unnecessarily prescribe a fentanyl-based pain medication and defraud health care insurers.”
Special agent Harold Shaw of the FBI explained:
As alleged, top executives of Insys Therapeutics, Inc. paid kickbacks and committed fraud to sell a highly potent and addictive opioid that can lead to abuse and life threatening respiratory depression. In doing so, they contributed to the growing opioid epidemic and placed profit before patient safety. These indictments reflect the steadfast commitment of the FBI and our law enforcement partners to confront the opioid epidemic impacting our communities, while bringing to justice those who seek to profit from fraud or other criminal acts.
Since then, more federal charges have been announced against those connected to Subsys, and numerous state attorneys have filed their own lawsuits against other employees implicated. Though the six executives charged all pled not guilty, other employees have pled guilty.
Two months ago, former Insys regional manager Karen Hill pled guilty, giving the court details about how she trained employees to convince doctors to collude with the company.
“She gave examples that some of her doctors were motivated by money, chocolate, and spending time with her,” federal prosecutors stated in a release regarding her plea. “When the sales representative asked Hill how to identify doctors who were financially motivated to prescribe Subsys, Hill explained that she looks for doctors that are ‘money hungry,’ and went on to describe how to figure out if a doctor has a ‘light in their eyes’ and is willing to ‘play ball.’”
“Patient safety is paramount and prescriptions for these highly addictive drugs, especially Fentanyl, which is among the most potent and addictive opioids, should be prescribed without the influence of corporate money,” noted United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz. “I hope that today’s charges send a clear message that we will continue to attack the opioid epidemic from all angles, whether it is corporate greed or street level dealing.”
It’s inspiring to see that the justice system is taking this form of corruption seriously, especially with an industry as large and powerful as Big Pharma. However, this isn’t the first time doctors were paid money to push opioids or other pharmaceutical drugs.
A recently published study in the American Journal of Public Health demonstrated just how deep this problem of the doctor-opioid relationship runs, proving that opioids represent a lucrative business for both physicians and Big Pharma.
The study found that an astonishing 1 in 12 doctors has received money from drug companies marketing opioid pharmaceuticals. Between August 2013 and December 2015, researchers at Boston Medical Center found that 68,177 doctors were paid a combined amount of $46 million from drug companies marketing these drugs. You can read more about that here.
You can even figure out exactly how much your personal doctor gets paid to sell you drugs, regardless of whether or not they’re opioids or any other pharmaceutical drug. You can read more about that here and discover how much Big Pharma pays your doctor to prescribe you drugs.
Although the U.S. government has been lenient toward Big Pharma in the past, the situation with Insys clearly illustrates that some within the system can and will take a stand against Big Pharma. Let’s hope that this trend continues into the future.
This entire situation also puts the doctor-patient relationship into question, and makes you wonder why it is that doctors are compensated when you’re sick rather than when you’re cured or feeling better. Doctors’ jobs are supposedly to help cure you, so shouldn’t doctors be paid when they get you off drugs, because that would imply they’ve helped cure you, not to get you on them?
The opioid epidemic is also a huge issue in and of itself, and I’d encourage you to read the following articles so you can get a better understanding of how Big Pharma and the U.S. government played fundamental roles in creating it.
It’s no secret that there’s an opium epidemic plaguing North America, and it’s been a growing issue for decades. Many people often picture drug dealers as these scary individuals selling pills on streets, when in reality, the drug pushers responsible for the abuse of opioids, opium, and heroin are largely the U.S. government, pharmaceutical companies, and doctors.
That’s right: The U.S. government and physicians are deeply connected to the opium trade. You have physicians as well as Big Pharma heavily pushing and marketing opioids, and then you have the U.S. government governing the opium trade. It’s very clear that we need a shift in values in the medical industry, from focusing on profit to focusing on healing.
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