“Fentanyl Spray Federal Criminal Trial” Now In US District Court of Massachusetts Jury Deliberations
By Mark A. York (April 8, 2019)
December 2016 saw Insys Therpaeutics Founder John Kapoor, CEO Michael Babich and five other senior executives indicted on criminal charges for paying kickbacks and bribes to medical professionals and committing fraud against insurance companies across the country for offering a highly addictive Fentanyl prescription product “Subsys” to the masses. The Insys boardroom was indicted in the US District Court of Massachusetts, where the entire team has engaged a stable of top national law firms to defend the indictments. The “Subsys” sales teams were charged in federal indictments across the country, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Alaska and New York and the indictments will only increase as these cases proceed and “cooperating witnesses” decide that prison isn’t an option.
To compound further harsh scrutiny for Insys, it’s new CEO Saeed Motahari, moved over from Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the Oxycontin maker, who’s also a major target of criminal and civil investigations across the country by various agencies. Purdue is being investigated for false marketing, off-label use and ignoring Oxycontin’s highly addictive dangers for years, while bringing in literally billions of dollars in profits.
PRIOR DOCTOR INDICTMENTS
Doctors who’ve written massive numbers of Subsys prescription, under the “fee to speak” program have been indicted and they include pain clinics, medical centers and other healthcare facilities who now face federal criminal charges for fraudulent prescription writing, submitting false claims to insurance companies and numerous other federal charges and all face a minimum of 20 to 50 years in federal prison. Two of the busiest “Subsys” prescription writers in the country were Alabama doctors, John Couch and Xiulu Ruan, who earned over $40 million from Insys, and were charged with running a pill mill between 2013 and 2015, have been convicted and sentenced to 20 years each in federal prison.
The top “Subsys” prescriber of all, Dr. Gavin Awerbach, of Saginaw, MI pled guilty to defrauding Medicare and Blue Cross out of $3.1 million in improper Subsys prescriptions, his criminal sentence is pending. To show the far reach of Insys and its corporate plans to saturate the US market with opioids, in Anchorage, Alaska Dr. Mahmood Ahmad, was charged with a massive Subsys prescribing operation, which he denies, but immediately surrendered his Alaska medical license which caused the revocation of his license Arkansas.
THE OFF LABEL CAMPAIGN
The only people who are supposed to be taking Subsys are adult cancer patients, according to the FDA “Subsys” approval files, anything other than that is an “off label” indication. Now you can take a drug to treat something off label if you want to, but you have to get your doctor to get pass a prior authorization.
Anthem alleges that Insys has an entire unit to get around this requirement — it’s titled the “reimbursement unit.” Investigative journalists exposed this fraud initially as far back as 2015 on behalf of the Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation, see Insys Therapeutics “Subsys” Off Label Rx Fraud.
The Reimbursement Unit claim was basically the company’s fraudulent prescription approval factory, which helped participating doctors process claims (the doctors had so many they couldn’t handle them all). The unit falsified records to show patients had cancer and called insurers, pretending to be patients or other medical professionals, to facilitate approval of payment for off-label treatment.
This is the Unit’s script for obtaining off-label approval (taken from the Anthem suit):
The script read: “The physician is aware that the medication is intended for the management of breakthrough pain in cancer patients. The physician is treating the patient for their pain (or breakthrough pain, whichever is applicable).” The script deliberately omitted the word “cancer as applied to the patient treatment under discussion.”
Prosecutors also said that two former Insys employees who were first charged in 2016 in connection with the scheme, Jonathan Roper and Fernando Serrano, had secretly pleaded guilty and become cooperating witnesses. The five doctors were arrested last Friday morning and face charges including that they violated the federal anti-kickback law and conspired to commit fraud.
INSYS RX ABUSES WERE BLATANT
The case is the latest in a series of medical practitioners and former Insys executives and employees facing criminal charges related to Subsys, the company’s potentially addictive fentanyl-based spray.
Federal prosecutors in Boston are moving forward aggressively against the seven former Insys executives and managers as well billionaire founder John Kapoor, all accused of actively designing and participating in the scheme to bribe doctors to prescribe Subsys and to defraud insurers into paying for it. Insys has said it may need to pay at least $150 million towards part of a settlement with the U.S. Justice Department as well as numerous other state investigations around the country, not to mention the civil complaints filed against the company in the Opiate Prescription MDL 2804, see OPIOID-CRISIS-BRIEFCASE-INCLUDING-MDL-2804-OPIATE-PRESCRIPTION-LITIGATION, where the Insys sales and marketing tactics are listed as prime examples of boardroom designed “profits over patients” policies are cited.
Insys is joined in the massive Federal Opioid MDL 2804, by other Big Pharma defendants including Purdue Pharmaceuticals, Endo Health, J&J’s Janssen Pharmaceutical and other opioid manufacturers who were allowed to place profits over patients for more than 15 years, while earning billions in profits.
UNETHICAL SALES TACTICS
According to the most recent and prior doctor indictments, the physicians have participated in Insys’ speaker programs, which were in reality social gatherings at high-end restaurants. They earned kickbacks ranging from $68,000 and $308,000 and were among the top 20 prescribers of Subsys nationwide at some point during the marketing campaign. A few doctors indicted as far back as late 2016 have already been sentenced to federal prison terms up to 20 years and forfeit of millions of dollars in assets. The Insys marketing tactics included trips with doctors to strip clubs with Insys sales managers; and often with Insys executives, where they covered lap dances and drinks which on one trip ran up a tab of over $4,100 which was apparently enough to convince physicians to write massive numbers of off-label fentanyl prescriptions.
The Criminal Trial Status
A cooperating witness testified by calling the payments bribes, a former vice president of Insys Therapeutics stood by a giant spreadsheet in court Tuesday and described how the drug company funneled phony “speaking fees” to doctors in exchange for prescribing its highly addictive opioid painkiller.
Alec Burlakoff, who has pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and is testifying in US District Court in Boston against Insys founder John N. Kapoor and four former colleagues, said Kapoor encouraged the program in late 2012 to spur doctors to prescribe Subsys, an under-the-tongue fentanyl spray.
But Kapoor insisted that each practitioner generate at least twice as much revenue for Insys by writing Subsys prescriptions than he or she received from the company.
Burlakoff stood next to an enlarged spreadsheet that executives prepared in December 2012. One column showed what each “speaker” received every time he or she supposedly met with other doctors to promote Subsys. The amounts ranged from $1,000 to $1,600 to $2,400 depending on whether Insys designated them local, regional, or national experts.
In truth, he said, the designation “national expert” was ludicrous and some doctors had only sordid reputations for running “pill mills.”
Another column showed how many prescriptions the practitioners wrote for Subsys, while another displayed how many they wrote for competing fentanyl products.
Assistant US Attorney Fred Wyshak Jr. asked Burlakoff what another column listing sums of money represented.
“That’s the amount of money we paid in bribes to date,” said Burlakoff, the former vice president of sales, prompting one of the defense lawyers for the five defendants to object.
Kapoor and four other former executives of the Chandler, Ariz.-based company are on trial for allegedly conspiring to violate the federal criminal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, by paying bribes and kickbacks to practitioners. Prosecutors typically use RICO to go after alleged mobsters.
It is the first criminal trial of pharmaceutical executives who marketed an opioid painkiller since the nation’s deadly opioid epidemic began.
Burlakoff, whom jurors first saw last month dressed as a bottle of Subsys spray in a jaw-dropping in-house rap video, said that at least one executive strenuously objected to the company tracking how many Subsys prescriptions participants in the speakers program wrote.
Matthew Napoletano, Insys’s former head of marketing, who has already testified under immunity for the government, rose from his chair at a meeting with Kapoor, Burlakoff, and other executives, Burlakoff said. Napoletano said such a spreadsheet could be viewed as evidence of a crime.
But the company went forward with the payment program.
The payments were hardly the only way Insys prodded doctors to write Subsys prescriptions, Burlakoff said. Leaders of the sales team, including Joseph Rowan, a former regional sales director who is among the defendants, would buy coolers full of steaks for doctors, according to Burlakoff.
In other cases, he said, Insys executives would put staffers in the offices of big Subsys prescribers on the payroll of the drug company; those staffers were often spending considerable time on the phone with insurers trying to get them to approve Subsys prescriptions, and “now doctors would no longer be complaining” about the expense of paying those employees to do that.
Burlakoff, who became vice president of sales in 2012 after spending years at Cephalon, Eli Lilly and Company, and other drug makers, said Insys didn’t only provide incentives to physicians; the company also gave incentives to members of the sales team.
Sales representatives at Insys, he said, had a starting salary of $40,000 a year, less than half of what such employees typically made at other drug companies. But they received an extraordinary commission of 10 percent on the sales they made each quarter, and it wasn’t capped.
Several sales representatives, he said, made $110,000 in a quarter based just on the commission.
As part of the boardroom strategy to get doctors to prescribe Subsys, Insys spent millions paying them off through a fraudulent “speakers program” meant to educate medical professionals about the drug. The speaking engagements were a veiled attempt to cover-up the direct payment to doctors for writing prescriptions, the more prescriptions you wrote, the higher your “speaking fees” increased. There are e-mails, texts and other Insys communications from all levels of company personnel stating “if they not writing prescription, they’re off the speaking program”, this policy resulted in one Alabama sales rep being paid over $700 thousand in Subsys based Rx commissions for one year, while her base salary was $40 thousand.
SALES REP NATALIE REED PERHAC
In the plea, Perhacs admitted that she was hired to be the personal sales representative for one of Insys’s most important prescribers, Dr. Xiulu Ruan. Ruan is one of two Alabama doctors who picked up over $115,000 in speaker fees from 2012 to 2015, and earned in excess of $40 million in related medical earnings during the same period. Earlier this year they were sentenced to 20 years in jail each for running a “pill mill” and helping Insys sales rep Natalie Reed Perhacs sell Subsys, for which she was paid in excess of $700 thousand in commissions, see Perhac Guilty Plea in Alabama Federal Court.
Perhac Plea Excerpts:
Admision No. 78: . Perhacs admitted that her primary responsibility at Insys was to increase the volume of Subsys® prescribed by Dr. Ruan, and his partner Dr. John Patrick Couch. This… was accomplished by (1) handling prior authorizations for their patients who had been prescribed Subsys®; (2) identifying patients who had been at the same strength of Subsys® for several months and recommending that Dr. Ruan or Dr. Couch increase the patients’ prescription strength; and (3) setting up and attending paid speaker programs.
Admission No. 79:. Ms. Perhac admitted that because of her involvement in the prior authorization process, she knew that the vast majority of Dr. Ruan and Dr. Couch’s patients did not have breakthrough cancer pain.
As you can see by the Perhac admissions, numbers 78 and 79, which reflect the vast number of charges lodged against her, the federal government is cracking down on everyone involved with the “Subsys” fraud. According to confidential sources, the recent June 2017 FDA “Opioid Crisis” Conference and related strategic review of the opioid crisis, will result in many more indictments and charges against drug makers and the medical providers who’ve helped facilitate the opioid epidemic that is currently in place across the United States.
How the results of the trail against the Insys Therapeutics boardroom plays out in the overall “Opioid Crisis” battle remains to be seen. There is always the question of why the Sackler family (Purdue Pharma) and the billions they’ve earned off improper marketing of Oxycontin and their scorched earth sales tactics, have not resulted in criminal indictments yet? Perhaps the Sackler family habit of donating billions to charities and having hospital wings named in their honor was a very strategic and forward looking business model that is now paying great dividends.