Doctors Wriggle Out of Lawsuits

By Jed Bickman 09/20/11

Pharma companies dig deep into their pockets to smooth over "irregularities," while mis-prescribing MDs are hard to touch.

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Big whistle-blowing lawsuits often highlight unethical practices in the pharmaceutical industry. But a new investigation—published by The Washington Post in collaboration with the nonprofit investigative fund ProPublica—claims they rarely stop doctors mis-prescribing meds, including notoriously addictive painkillers like oxycodone. Under federal law, drug companies may not market drugs to treat conditions other than those the FDA approves—you can’t advertise antipsychotics to treat dementia in patients who don’t have signs of schizophrenia, for example. Yet that's what Eli Lilly pleaded guilty to doing last year, settling a class-action lawsuit for $1.4 billion—it turned out that nursing homes were giving antipsychotic drugs to broad swathes of their clientele. Other lawsuits target the kickbacks that drug manufacturers give to doctors for (over)prescribing their medications: last year, Alpharma paid $42.5 million to the government to dodge a lawsuit that was set to reveal such payments for its morphine-based painkiller, Kadian. These lawsuits can result in big payoffs from drug companies, but it's much harder to hit doctors who actually mis-prescribe the drugs. Although companies can't market drugs for non-FDA-approved “off-label” use, it's quite legal for docs to prescribe off-label. ProPublica found that the doctors who are named in large lawsuits usually escape unscathed. Senator Charles E. Grassley, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary committee, stated that it takes “two sides to perpetuate this fraud”—both doctors and pharma companies—and that both should be held accountable. “Otherwise, regardless of how big a civil settlement a drug company makes, the incentive to cheat the taxpayers will still be in place for those willing to take part.”

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Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.