Practical insights for compliance and ethics professionals and commentary on the intersection of compliance and culture.

Whistleblowers in the pharmaceutical industry

This is the second of a three-part series profiling whistleblowers in different industries. This started with October 24’s post looking at the financial services industry, including UBS, HSBC, and Citigroup. Today’s post will be focused on the pharmaceutical industry, looking at whistleblowers who exposed fraudulent sales and marketing practices, ethical issues in the development and research phase, and more. The third and final post in this set on next Tuesday will be about whistleblowers who exposed high-profile corporate fraud in major companies such as Enron and General Electric.

Whistleblowers in the pharmaceutical industry make an important contribution to protecting consumer safety when they come forward to raise concerns about business practices in their organizations. Corporate misconduct in this industry has direct impact on patient care and individual health. Therefore the actions of whistleblowers can serve to not only shed light on fraudulent or abusive actions by organizations or individuals within them, but also to prevent future harm to scientists and researchers working in the business, third party partners within their supply chain, and end-user consumers.

  • Jim Wetta, AstraZeneca: Jim Wetta was a sales employee at AstraZeneca who blew the whistle over misleading marketing practices for the antipsychotic drug Seroquel. AstraZeneca had been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration only for treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. However, the company took on a major sales effort to market Seroquel for off-label use by children under the care of psychiatrists and elderly people suffering from dementia. The company used continuing education seminars, mandatory for doctors to maintain their licenses to practice medicine, to market the off-label uses of the drug which were not previously approved by the FDA. In 2010, AstraZeneca settled with the Department of Justice for $520 million and faced thousands of product liability claims over the marketing of Seroquel. Check out this New York Times article for more information on what happened in this drug marketing case. 
  • Robert Rudolph, Eli Lilly: Robert Rudolph also worked in sales, in his case Eli Lilly. Along with eight other whistleblowers, he went to the federal government with evidence of illegal sales practices by Eli Lilly in the marketing of Zyprexa, a drug approved, like Seroquel, for use in treating schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In 2001, the company began to market Zyprexa for a variety of off-label uses, especially in the elderly. Apart from this marketing process, Zyprexa representatives also took names from patient lists at doctors’ offices to try to get them to switch to Zyprexa, a blatant privacy violation. Further, throughout this time the company inflated the stock price by counting drug samples as sales. Rudolph, a long-time employee at Eli Lilly who was at the end of his career, saw the corporate culture changing in a bad way and felt that the pervasion of these practices into the business needed to be stopped. In 2009, Eli Lilly agreed to a $1.4 billion fine in a DOJ settlement. For an idea of the reputational risk this case caused Eli Lilly, take a look at this 2009 opinion piece on the dangers of the company’s practices to society.
  • John Kopchinksi, Pfizer: Like Wetta and Rudolph, John Kopchinski was a sales representative, in his case at Pfizer. In 2003, Kopchinski filed a “qui tam” lawsuit under the False Claims Act, which allows whistleblowers to aid the government in recovering money stolen in frauds that resulted in the government losing money. Kopchinski exposed evidence that Pfizer was promoting 13 drugs, most prominently the arthritis drug Bextra, for off-label uses that the FDA had previously rejected and unapproved doses. Kopchinski was fired by Pfizer after reporting his claims, but continued with the lawsuit until 2009. Pfizer went on to settle with the government for $2.3 billion. For more about Kopchinski’s legal battle with Pfizer, read this 2009 NPR piece.   
  • Adam Resnick, Omnicare: In another qui tam lawsuit filed under the False Claims Act, in 2006 Adam Resnick sued Omnicare, a pharmacy providing drugs to nursing homes, for Medicare and Medicaid fraud carried out in a series of kickback schemes with nursing home operators. This corrupt practice could potentially lead nursing home administrators to make decisions about what kind of drugs they give to residents not based upon patient care, but rather based upon what pharmaceutical supplier has enriched them in exchange for their continued business. Omnicare and the involved facilities settled their cases with the government in 2010. Resnick himself has a challenging past: he was a compulsive gambler who went to prison for check-kiting which led the collapse of the bank where he worked. As part of his rehabilitation from engaging in fraud he dedicated himself to exposing it instead. For more information on the Omnicare case, look to this 2010 article from the Chicago Tribune.
  • Cheryl Eckard, GlaxoSmithKline: Cheryl Eckard was a quality assurance manager for GlaxoSmithKlein. In 2002, she reported evidence that the company was selling defective and mis-identified drugs from its Puerto Rico plant. Eckard lost her job in 2003 after repeatedly complaining, but the FDA and DOJ found so many issues in the plant that GlaxoSmithKlein became an example for other pharmaceutical companies for what not to do. Due to products being mixed up in the manufacture and distribution process, the antidepressant Paxil and diabetes medication Avandamet were tainted. Some of the pills fell apart while others did not have the active ingredient required for them to be effective treatment. The factory where they were made did not have an effective quality controls framework in place. GlaxoSmithKline paid $750 million to the DOJ for their oversight shortcomings. For more information on the production problems Eckard exposed, read this 2010 article from the Guardian.

The process for creating, manufacturing, and distributing pharmaceutical products is long and complex, with many decision points where individuals may make choices in a narrow ethical frame or a limited context which prevents them from seeing the consequences of unethical actions or even the existence of better possible choices. Whistleblowers can help to demystify this process and illuminate for public scrutiny the problems in the design of the system that may cause good people to make bad decisions.

Check back next week, Tuesday November 14, for the final post in this three-part feature on whistleblowers in historical events. Next Tuesday’s post will discuss individuals who exposed fraudulent business practices in landmark cases of corporate fraud and bad business practices.

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