A landmark settlement was recently announced in a class action lawsuit against the McKesson corporation (NYSE: MCK). We’ve reported frequently on this case in the past, because two of our coalition members are among the lead plaintiffs in the case, the New England Carpenters Benefits Fund and AFSCME District Council 37 Health & Security Plan.

These two union health and welfare funds first filed a class action lawsuit, with other union funds and individual consumers, back in June 2005 and February 2006, alleging that First Databank and McKesson had carried out an illegal scheme from 2002 to 2005 to raise the price of prescription drugs.

The lawsuits claimed that in 2002, McKesson and First Databank began arbitrarily raising the “WAC-to-AWP spread” to 25% for over 400 brand-name drugs. Those drugs previously had only 20% WAC-to-AWP spread. To learn more about the allegations, and what the heck WAC & AWP are, read our page about the case here.

The case against First Databank settled back on October 6, 2006, an event which was covered on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. That settlement has been amended several times, and is still awaiting approval by the Judge in the case.

However, for the past two years, the case against McKesson has been proceeding. Until last month, McKesson publicly expressed an unwillingness to settle the case and seemed ready to go to trial. In fact, the trial was scheduled to begin on December 1. But on November 21, the plaintiffs’ counsel in the case and McKesson each issued statements announcing the settlement.

McKesson agreed to pay $350 Million to settle the case, and took an additional charge of $143 million for “outstanding and expected future AWP-related claims by public entities.” (Earlier this year, the state of Connecticut and the city of San Francisco each filed lawsuits against McKesson. It’s likely that other cities and states would have followed suit, no pun intended.)

There are two notable things about the settlement:

1. The Size: As far as we are aware, this is the largest settlement to date of a private class action lawsuit concerning pharmaceutical pricing. The next largest is probably the $150 million settlement of In re Lupron® Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation. In the case of In re Pharmaceutical Industry Average Wholesale Price Litigation, there have four settlements, totalling $232 million, but those settlements have involved more than a dozen defendants.

2. The Role of Unions: Four out of the five organizations that were plaintiffs in the case are Health & Welfare benefit funds affiliated with labor unions. Unions and their health & welfare funds have been very active in drug price and marketing lawsuits since the beginning. This is not surprising, given that union benefit funds feel the effects of drug pricing so directly. Unlike for-profit commercial insurers, union benefit funds can’t just “pass on” the increased cost of drugs to their members through increased premiums. As entities created “by, for and of” the individual members of their unions, they are answerable to those members. They are funded by the union dues of their members, and they are run not by board of directors populated by outsiders, but by boards of trustees composed of union members and staff and employer representatives.

In addition, unions generally are concerned about the rising costs of health care and are often very involved in efforts to increase access to health care, reform the health care system, and rein in costs. So being involved in such cases is a natural extension of the labor movement’s commitment to increasing and improving health care. (The U.S.’s employer-based health insurance system in fact has its roots in union benefits in the 40s and 50s).

A class action lawsuit, at its core, shares certain similarities with the role of labor unions generally. In both, the power of a single individual (either a consumer or an employee, respectively) to protect their rights against a much larger, wealthier entity (a pharmaceutical defendant, or an employer) is severely limited. Only by combining their numbers (in a class action or a union, respectively), can a large but dispersed group of otherwise-lone individuals protect their rights and challenge illegal behavior.

The Court held a hearing on the settlement on December 11, 2008 to consider whether the settlement should receive “preliminary approval.” This would allow notices to be published and sent to class members, letting them know that a settlement has been reached and may be approved by the Court. This triggers a period during which members of the class can file a claim form, and/or object to the terms of the settlement.

Steve Berman, lead plaintiffs counsel in the case, gave a number of reasons in his presentation to the Court why the settlement is fair, reasonable and adequate. He pointed to the fact that the settlement is the 3rd largest settlement ever of a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act case and possibly the largest drug fraud settlement ever. He said that the $493 million that McKesson has set aside for the settlement (and future settlements with public entities) represents 45% of McKesson’s total cash reserves. Speedy settlement, he argued, is in the interests of the class, particularly cash-paying consumers, given the state of the economy.

There are a number of innovative mechanisms proposed to ensure that settlement proceeds actually reach consumers in the classes. Large chain pharmacies would receive subpoenas to produce information about uninsured consumers who purchased the drugs at issue in the lawsuit. This information would be used to calculate payments for and issue checks directly to those consumers, without them needing to fill out a form and provide any documentation of their purchases. A group of large commercial health plans that are active in the case have agreed to collect data to calculate payments for and issue checks to consumers with insurance who paid for drugs at issue in the case and who would be eligible for such payments (this includes any consumers who had a percentage co-payment, rather than a fixed copayment, e.g. someone who paid 20% of the cost of a drug, and had 80% paid by their insurance, would be eligible for a payment from the settlement).

The settlement is very early in the stages it needs to go through before it is finally approved. But the fact that a settlement was reached is a very good development for consumers and health plans, and hopefully will serve to put other entities in the pharmaceutical marketplace on notice that fraud such as that alleged in this will not go unchallenged.

To learn more about the case against both First Databank, Medispan and McKesson see our page on the cases.