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Novartis, Sanofi and Pfizer engaged in illegal kickbacks and bribery

Written by Diane Archer

There’s a long history of pharmaceutical companies engaged in bribery and other illegal activities. The pharmaceutical industry routinely puts its interests before the public health every way it can. In the last week, Novartis, Sanofi and Pfizer have been called out for engaging in illegal kickbacks and bribery.

Stat News reports that Sanofi is paying nearly $12 million for violating the Anti-Kickback Statute, in this case, paying kickbacks to people with Medicare through charitable donations. Older adults and people with disabilities using Lemtrada to treat multiple sclerosis received the money to cover their copays. In addition to Sanofi, Johnson and Johnson, Amgen, Pfizer, Biogen and Novartis have settled similar lawsuits.

The federal Anti-Kickback Statute forbids pharmaceutical companies from paying money to people with Medicare and others in federal programs to use their medicines. Sanofi refused to admit guilt, claiming it was simply supporting charitable organizations.

Stat News reports that Novartis is paying $678 million to settle charges of illegal kickbacks to doctors in the US in the form of high honoraria for prescribing large amounts of its drugs. Novartis held more than 80,000 sham events since 2011. According to an FBI official, Novartis also bribed doctors to prescribe more of its drugs.

Stat News also reports that Novartis is paying $345 million to the Securities and Exchange Commission and the US Department of Justice to settle a federal criminal case. The government had charged Novartis with bribing doctors, hospitals and clinics in South Korea, Vietnam and Greece to prescribe its prescription drugs, in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The health care providers allegedly cooked their books in order to hide the bribes.

If this weren’t bad enough, Novartis also allegedly inappropriately conducted clinical trials in an effort to better market its drugs. An audit found no compelling scientific reason for the trials. Novartis paid health care providers who prescribed its drugs to attend conferences around the world.

High level Novartis executives were implicated. They appear to be getting off scot-free.

Meanwhile, Pfizer has brought a lawsuit that challenges the legality of laws that prohibit it from paying Medicare Part D drug copays for people with a severe heart condition. It says it wants to help people pay for tafamidis which is prescribed to treat the heart condition and costs $225,000 a year.  Of course, the easiest way to help patients would be to lower the cost of the drug.

Instead, Pfizer wants either to pay copays directly or to pay copays through charities. But, the underlying motive is to boost sales for the very expensive drug, while keeping the drug price high. And, the Office of the Inspector General treats such activities as fraud.

Pfizer’s argument is that there is no other drug for this condition. So, it cannot be engaged in illegal steering for this drug. It further claims that it is unconstitutional, violating the equal protection clause and the first amendment, to bar the company from supporting charitable organizations. People with Medicare not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid or other federal programs to cover the cost of the drug and not wealthy enough to pay for the drug’s out-of-pocket costs themselves are hurt.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Senator Elizabeth Warren are leading a charge to fight these pharmaceutical company practices. Drug companies get big tax breaks and profits from their “charitable donations.”  Their drug prices need to be lower.

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