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When drug makers' profits outweigh penalties

"Until a couple of these cases became public, companies were probably saying, 'Everybody does it this way,' " Sullivan says.

Loucks had a track record in off-label prosecutions. In 1994, he negotiated a $61 million settlement with C.R. Bard of New Jersey, which pleaded guilty to promoting off-label use of a heart catheter that led to patient deaths.

The off-label campaign

In the January 2004 settlement negotiations with Loucks, Sullivan and two other prosecutors, Pfizer's lawyers assured the U.S. Attorney's Office that the company wouldn't market drugs off-label.

"They asserted that the company understood the rules and had taken steps to assure corporate compliance with the law," Loucks says. "We remember those promises."

What Pfizer's lawyers didn't tell the prosecutors was that Pfizer was at that moment running an off-label marketing promotion using more than 100 salespeople who were pitching Bextra, according to a Pfizer sales manager who pleaded guilty to misbranding a drug in March 2009.

Pharmacia & Upjohn developed Bextra, which was approved by the FDA in 2001 for only the treatment of arthritis and menstrual discomfort.

P&U and Pfizer had by then crafted a joint marketing agreement to sell the drug. In November 2001, Mary Holloway, a Pfizer Northeast regional manager, began illegally training and directing her sales team to market Bextra for the relief of acute pain, Holloway admitted in the plea.

On Dec. 4, 2001, Pfizer executives sent Holloway a copy of a nonpublic FDA letter to the company. The agency had denied Pfizer's application to market Bextra for acute pain. Clinical trials had shown Bextra could cause heart damage and death.

Pfizer bought Pharmacia & Upjohn in April 2003. From 2001 through 2003, P&U, first as an independent company and then as a unit of Pfizer, paid doctors more than $5 million in cash to lure them to resorts, where salespeople illegally pitched off-label uses for Bextra, P&U admitted.

In her guilty plea, Holloway said her team had solicited hospitals to create protocols to buy Bextra for the unapproved purpose of acute pain relief. Her representatives didn't mention the increased risk of heart attacks in their marketing.

They told doctors that side effects were no worse than those of a sugar pill, Holloway said.

In 2003, Holloway reported her unit's off-label promotions of Bextra up the corporate ladder at Pfizer, according to a presentencing memo to the judge written by Robert Ullmann, Holloway's attorney. Top managers didn't attempt to halt the illegal conduct, the memo said.

By late 2004, Bextra reached blockbuster status, with annual sales of $1.29 billion. Holloway promoted Bextra until the FDA asked Pfizer in April 2005 to pull it from the market for all uses.

The agency concluded that the drug increased the risk of heart attacks, chest infections and strokes in cardiac surgery patients. In June 2009, Holloway, 47, was sentenced to two years on probation and fined $75,000. She didn't return phone calls seeking comment.

'We regret . . . '

By 2007, the criminal and civil cases against Pfizer, its employees and its subsidiaries had begun to mount. The tally of drugs cited by federal prosecutors for off-label promotion reached six by 2009. In April 2007, P&U pleaded guilty to a felony charge of offering a $12 million kickback to a pharmacy benefit manager. Pfizer paid a criminal fine of $19.7 million. In September 2009, Pfizer agreed to pay $2.2 billion in fines and penalties. P&U pleaded guilty to a felony charge of misbranding Bextra with the intent to defraud. After the settlement, Pfizer general counsel Amy Schulman said the company had learned its lesson.

"We regret certain actions we've taken in the past," she said. "Corporate integrity is an absolute priority for Pfizer."

One reason drug companies keep breaking the law may be because prosecutors and judges have been unwilling to use the ultimate sanction -- a felony conviction that would exclude a company from selling its drugs for reimbursement by state health programs and federal Medicare.

At Pfizer's Pharmacia sentencing in October, U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock said companies don't appear to take the law seriously. "It has become something of a cost of doing business for some of these corporations, to shed their skin like certain animals and leave the skin and move on," he said.

As prosecutors continue to uncover patterns of deceit in off-label marketing, millions of patients across the nation remain in the dark. Doctors often choose the medications based on dishonest marketing by drug company salesmen.

Loucks says that putting an end to the criminal off-label schemes will be difficult. As drugmakers repeatedly plead guilty, they've shown they're willing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines as a cost of generating billions in revenue.

The best hope, Loucks says, is that drug companies actually honor the promises they keep making -- and keep breaking -- to obey the law of the land.

As much as $100 million for health-care fraud enforcement is tied up in the stalled reform legislation, according to Loucks.

"It will be increasingly hard for the threat of exclusion to seem credible and thus serve as a deterrent to bad corporate behavior," he says, "unless Congress supports health-care fraud prosecutions with more money."

A version of this story originally appeared in Bloomberg Markets Magazine. It was awarded a 2010 Society of American Business Editors and Writers award for enterprise reporting and general excellence.

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