Opioid Company's Top Executives Found Guilty Of Bribing Doctors

May 2, 2019
Originally published on May 3, 2019 12:36 am
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now to Boston where five pharmaceutical company executives have been found guilty of bribing doctors and lying to insurance companies to boost sales of a highly addictive prescription fentanyl spray. Insys founder John Kapoor is the most high-profile drug company executive to face criminal charges for the industry's role in the opioid epidemic.

To talk more about the case, we're joined now by Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WGBH in Boston. Welcome.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Hi. Thank you.

CHANG: So can you just start us off by telling a little bit more about what Kapoor and his other Insys - the other Insys executives were accused of?

EMANUEL: Yeah, so Insys Therapeutics made an opioid painkiller called Subsys. It's fentanyl-based. It's very addictive. And basically what they did was they paid doctors to prescribe this medication often in very high doses and to people who did not need it. And they did this through setting up a sham speakers program where the speakers did not actually give speeches often, but they were paid for writing prescriptions. And then the next piece of it is that the Insys employees lied to insurance companies to make sure that this drug was covered. It was a very expensive drug.

CHANG: And why did prosecutors choose to charge them with criminal racketeering in this case? Why is that important?

EMANUEL: So that is significant because often pharmaceutical companies face fines when they've - when they get in trouble, often millions of dollars, hundreds of millions dollars. But this is the first major criminal conviction of a pharmaceutical executive related to the opioid epidemic. So these executives could be spending time in jail up to 20 years. So that's really significant.

The other part is that this was a racketeering conspiracy. So this means there weren't just a few bad actors. They were conspiring with each other to do this. Racketeering is something that's often designed to go after the mob. So experts say this victory could mean that this is the beginning of a trend, and we'll see more criminal cases alongside the civil cases.

CHANG: Now, I understand that there were some particularly vivid moments in the prosecution's case. What kind of picture did they pay for the courtroom?

EMANUEL: Yeah, so they painted a picture of a company that was unethical from the very top to the very bottom. So two sales representatives made a rap video that was played in trial where they were dancing and singing about getting patients on the highest dose of the opioid possible. And there was also a former exotic dancer who was hired as part of the sales team, and she gave a lap dance to persuade a doctor to write prescriptions for the opioid medication. And that woman was actually one of the co-defendants who was just found guilty today.

CHANG: And how did the defense respond to all of these allegations?

EMANUEL: Yeah, so this was a long trial. It lasted 10 weeks, and the defense rested their case in just three days. So - and that wasn't just Kapoor. That was also his four co-defendants. So it was really brief. And what they basically argued was that things did go wrong, but these defendants were not to blame, is what they said. They said other executives were to blame. And they in particular pointed a finger at the head of sales, who pleaded guilty and cooperated with the government. But in the end, that did not convince the jury.

CHANG: So I gather the defense is expected to appeal the verdict. However that turns out, why is today's victory for the prosecutors still so important?

EMANUEL: So this is really significant because it represents an increasingly aggressive turn by the federal government in their effort to go after those responsible for the nationwide opioid epidemic. And the prosecutors in this case demonstrated that they could convince a jury that there were individual pharmaceutical executives who are criminally responsible for their role in fueling this epidemic. So this could embolden other prosecutors to go after pharmaceutical companies and to go after those at the very top.

CHANG: Gabrielle Emanuel from WGBH in Boston, thank you very much.

EMANUEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.