[Also posted on Postscript]

When drugmakers lie to doctors about a drug’s safety or effectiveness, health plans pay more for substandard care, and patients suffer.

Case in point — the recent guilty plea and $1.5 billion settlement for illegal promotion of the drug Depakote revealed how Abbott Labs misled doctors for nearly a decade. They went to great lengths, profiling doctors, training their salespeople, and inappropriately funding and influencing Continuing Medical Education to get doctors to prescribe Depakote for unapproved treatment of seniors with dementia. Why? Because such off-label promotion instantly expands a drug’s market, and thus the drugmaker’s potential profits.

Unfortunately, class action lawsuits on behalf of consumers and health plans challenging such illegal marketing have met significant legal hurdles, and have been dismissed. This leaves consumers and private market health plans paying billions because of this fraud, while millions of patients receive inappropriate treatment, and are unnecessarily put at risk of side effects, which are often serious.

But progress is being made by State Attorneys-General and the Department of Justice bringing legal challenges under false claim laws. As a result, six of the biggest drugmakers have admitted or pled guilty to illegal promotion of unapproved uses of drugs since 2004. These investigations, most often initiated by whistleblowers, have led to the largest fines in U.S. history, and billions will be recovered this year alone.

But while all these enforcement actions are a welcome development, a recent jury verdict in a trial by the State of Arkansas may become a game-changer in the fight to stop the illegal marketing or promotion of drug products.

This past April, Arkansas Attorney-General Dustin McDaniel won a staggering verdict against Johnson & Johnson for their illegal promotion of the off-label uses of the antipsychotic drug Risperdal. In a trial before a jury, the state won $1.19 billion (yes, that’s ‘b’ ) in fines for violations of the state Medicaid anti-fraud law.

A hefty billion-dollar fine like this from one state sends a very big message — drug companies can no longer pursue profits by scoffing at the laws designed to protect safety-net health plans and the patients they serve.

Even more encouraging is the fact that most of the $1.19 billion in fines will go to the State Medicaid fund, which is looking at a $400 million budget shortfall next year.

What could be better than a deterrent that also helps stabilize funding for a state’s Medicaid plan during these tough economic times? Well, the only thing that could make this victory even better would be for Arkansas’ Medicaid program to earmark some of these recovered funds to correct the misinformation spread by Johnson & Johnson. Setting aside even a small amount of funds to allow trained independent medical professionals to go out into the field and teach doctors about the appropriate and effective alternatives to the unapproved uses of Risperdal will help prevent any ongoing inappropriate use of Risperdal, improving the quality of patient care and protect patients from being harmed by the significant side effects of the drug, like weight gain and diabetes. (See more about such education programs here.)

As we have seen in drug pricing (here and here) and universal coverage, the States often take the lead in on innovative ways to protect consumers. Based on this successful prosecution by the Arkansas Attorney-General, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the remaining States to beef up their anti-fraud laws and enforcement staff, and go after the drug industry.

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