The guilty plea and $1.5 billion settlement by Abbott to resolve their illegal off-label promotion of Depakote revealed a saga of extensive industry abuses and influence peddling that put millions of vulnerable seniors at risk. Abbott’s extensive promotion of the unapproved uses of the anti-convulsant drug Depakote to treat both seniors with dementia and to treat children is shocking. But it is even more alarming that this not the first major drugmaker to plead guilty to illegal marketing tactics that have targeted this exceptionally vulnerable population of seniors.

Many may recall that Eli Lilly was caught illegally promoting the unapproved, or “off-label” use of the antipsychotic drug Zyprexa to treat seniors with dementia, despite their internal studies showing that the risk of death from this drug increased in elderly patients.

Marketing these drugs to nursing homes for use on patients who ‘act up’ or are unruly has been a lucrative strategy for drugmakers. In response, we applaud the Department of Justice and the State Attorneys-General for their increasingly aggressive litigation to penalize these dangerous and unconscionable marketing practices.

But unfortunately for the millions of seniors who may be given Depakote or Zyprexa today or in the near future, the record-breaking $1.4 and $1.5 billion settlements respectively may not translate into improved care, unless further action is taken.

We urge Medicare and Medicaid officials at the federal and state level to move quickly to develop and implement safeguards, such as prior approvals or mandatory second opinions, that could be put in place to protect these vulnerable seniors from any unwarranted or inappropriate use of the drug Depakote to treat their dementia.

Looking forward, it’s time that all off-label settlements by the DOJ or the states include a requirement that the drugmaker pay to correct the misinformation that off-label marketing creates – i.e. that a drug is safer or more effective than it really is. Using lawsuits to fund corrective educational campaigns has a long history, both in public and private sector litigation. (See description here.)

To help stop the inappropriate and potentially harmful overuse of Depakote, Zyprexa, or Risperdal from continuing, doctors should be retrained to undo the misinformation campaigns by Abbott, Eli Lilly, and Johnson and Johnson. Several states, including Pennsylvania and New York have implemented “academic detailing” programs that send independent medical experts, usually nurse practitioners and pharmacists, to provide doctors with the truth about how effective drugs are from an objective, evidence-based perspective. Many state programs specifically address mental health drugs such as Zyprexa and Depakote. Indeed, one of the first of these education programs designed by Dr. Jerry Avorn, who spearheaded the concept in the 1990’s, recommended that a little tender loving care by nursing home staff could reduce the inappropriate use of sedatives, common at that time. A similar conclusion was reached by some nursing homes profiled in an  inspiring Boston Globe article addressing the overuse of Depakote.

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