The Affordable Care Act created some desperately needed means to start controlling ever-rising health care costs. Many — like preventive care or delivery reforms — will take some time to realize savings. In contrast, new anti-fraud efforts look to be paying off right away, in amounts much bigger than expected.

The health reform law provided $350 million over ten years to increase anti-fraud investigation and enforcement resources for the Department of Justice (DOJ) and State Attorneys-General. The goal? Saving $6.4 billion over the next decade. Given that some estimate that fraud and waste cost as much as $60 billion a year, or $600 billion over a decade, saving one percent of that amount seems a pretty modest impact.

But wait! New estimates project that current or pending settlements of drug fraud litigation by the DOJ and the Attorneys-General will top $8 billion in FY2012 alone, according to the group Taxpayers Against Fraud. (See their list below.) This is not the culmination of hundreds of lawsuits; it’s just the eight biggest. So it looks like this anti-fraud effort under the ACA will meet and then surpass this ten-year goal in less than two years!

To be fair, some of these fraud investigations were undoubtedly underway before the increased funding for anti-fraud efforts reached the DOJ and State Attorneys-General offices. But there is little doubt that providing these over-worked regulators with increased resources was a big help in increasing enforcement. DOJ probably has fewer lawyers working on all their pending drug fraud cases than some of the biggest drugmakers hire to defend in just one lawsuit. But despite these disparities, the results show that very modest government investment in fighting fraud, coupled with hard work by government lawyers and whistleblowers, can pay off big.

For example, earlier this week drugmaker Abbott Labs in Chicago settled a civil and criminal investigation of their illegal promotion of the anti-convulsant drug Depakote as an unapproved treatment of dementia in seniors, and of various conditions in children. Abbott pleaded guilty to promoting these unapproved, or ‘off-label’ uses of Depakote, and agreed to pay $1.6 billion – one of the biggest settlements for the illegal promotion of a single drug.

There could be a couple hundred pending whistle-blower lawsuits that are filed under seal and being investigated now by the federal or state regulators. These pending lawsuits may add up to billions of dollars of additional settlements.

Some critics have warned that even billion-dollar fines are an inadequate deterrent when a drug company can profit far more on illegal sales of a drug.

For instance, the $1.2 billion record-breaking settlement with Eli Lilly in 2009 for illegal promotion of their antipsychotic drug Zeprexa was less than 5 percent of Lilly’s gross sales. Yet eight months later, DOJ shattered this record with an even bigger $2.3 billion settlement with Pfizer, which amounted to 14 percent of their gross sales of eight illegally marketed drugs.

Similarly, this month’s $1.6 billion Depakote settlement is nearly 12 percent of the drug’s $13.8 billion in gross sales revenue from 1998 to 2008. Furthermore, DOJ is pioneering two mechanisms to deter future illegal conduct by Abbott, along with this hefty fine.

First, the Depakote settlement places Abbott on probation and imposes a corporate compliance and monitoring program, for five years. If Abbott violates the compliance agreement or significantly violates the law, the government can exclude Abbott, and all their drug products, from federal health care programs. That would cost Abbott billions in lost sales on numerous drugs.

The settlement also aims to hold Abbott’s corporate leadership accountable. Abbott’s CEO must personally certify compliance and the board of directors must review and report on compliance each year. If the CEO or board is lax in these duties, they could be excluded from their positions at Abbott. And if they intentionally lie to the government to cover up any misconduct, they could face personal criminal liability under the federal False Statements Statute.

Sadly, Abbott’s illegal promotion of ineffective and dangerous uses of Depakote has both harmed and put at risk what is arguably the most vulnerable patient population – seniors suffering from dementia, who live away from their families in nursing homes. Undoubtedly millions of seniors were and continue to be given Depakote inappropriately as a result of Abbott’s illegal promotional campaign.

More to come on (1) actions that Medicare and Medicaid can take to address the continuing effects on patients of illegal promotions of off-label use of drugs and (2) how the Arkansas AG fought prescription drug fraud, winning huge fines to plug the state’s Medicaid budget deficit. This blog was also posted on Health Policy Hub.

— Wells Wilkinson, Director, Prescription Access Litigation Staff Attorney, Community Catalyst

Projected Drug Fraud Settlements in FY 2012

Manufacturer Settlement($,millions) Fraudulent conduct
Merck: 950 Off-label marketing of Vioxx — settled
GlaxoSmithKline: 3,000 Series of drug frauds, said to be settled in principle
Abbott: 1,500 Off-label marketing of Depakote, settled
Amgen: 780 illegal marketing of Aranesp, funds reserved.
Pfizer: 500 Illegal marketing of protonix, projected settlement amount
Johnson & Johnson: 1,000 Off-label marketing of Risperdal, civil settlement is expected.
Ranbaxy: 400 adulteration of HIV drugs, settlement in excess of $400 million expected
Sandoz (Novartis): 150 AWP pricing fraud, settled
TOTAL 8,280