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Feds take aim at off-label marketing

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Jeanne Whalen writes that a recent string of charges against drug companies, including heavyweights like Pfizer, Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Novartis, shows that a decade of aggressive prosecution hasn’t deterred them from some shady marketing practices. [Article require subscriber access]

Whalen says the promotion of off-label prescriptions is still at the core of the most common offenses, and that, according to says Patrick Burns, director of communications at Taxpayers Against Fraud, problems are most likely to crop up “when drug companies are promoting therapies that are similar to others on the market.”

pills
Photo by somegeekintn via Flickr.

Whalen reports that the Justice Department, which often relies on corporate whistleblowers to spark investigations in this arena, has made such cases a priority.

“Combating health care fraud is a top priority of the Department of Justice,” said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department’s Civil Division

Drug companies have apparently taken notice. GlaxoSmithKline recently started “capping its annual payments to U.S. doctors at $150,000 and publishing the figures” while AstraZeneca’s CEO said the crackdown had made pharmaceutical companies “more sensitive than we’ve ever been” when it comes to preventing illegal drug promotion. Whalen writes that these steps may not be enough.

But Shelley Slade, a former Justice Department lawyer who now represents corporate whistleblowers through the firm Vogel, Slade & Goldstein LLP, in Washington, D.C., said large criminal monetary penalties and civil settlements don’t appear to deter companies sufficiently. “It’s not going to stop until the government puts some of these executives in jail,” she said. “Many of these companies view the fines as a small fraction of what they have gained through illegal schemes, and just a cost of doing business.”