Two weeks ago, reports of the largest legal settlement involving a pharmaceutical company to date in the US appeared.
The $3 Billion Settlement
In summary, per the Philadelphia Inquirer,
In perhaps the largest penalty ever paid by a pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline said Thursday it had reached a tentative deal with the U.S. Justice Department to pay $3 billion to settle criminal and civil allegations of illegal marketing practices and pricing under a Medicaid program.
Why the deal was announced this month is not clear. Neither are all its provisions:
Glaxo said the deal would be made final in 2012, but it was unclear why it was announced now. A spokeswoman declined to say whether Glaxo would have to live by a corporate integrity agreement, which the government sometimes requires in such cases.
The Inquirer listed some possible reasons for the settlement,
As for Glaxo's latest situation, one investigation, started by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Colorado and later run on a national level by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston, looked at Glaxo's marketing practices related to nine of its best-selling drugs, including Paxil, Wellbutrin, and later Advair.
In a second investigation, the Justice Department looked at Glaxo's possibly inappropriate use of rules exceptions when reporting prices charged for drugs for different situations in the marketplace. Under part of the Medicaid Rebate Program, drugmakers are supposed to report the lowest price they charge most organizations, which is then used to calculate the price that Medicaid ultimately pays for its drugs.
The third investigation, also by the Justice Department, was over how Glaxo promoted the diabetes drug Avandia, which was pulled from European markets and severely restricted last fall by the Food and Drug Administration after it was shown to cause heart attacks.
As commonly occurs in such cases, GSK and its CEO averred that all the sorts of conduct that lead to this settlement are old news:
The company said in a statement that since 2008 it had 'established a new framework for compliance in the U.S., based on the company's values, policies and established industry codes of practices. It is supported by a larger compliance staff and strengthened training programs that require certification by employees.'
The changes included new incentive formulas for sales representatives, eliminating sales targets for bonuses.
'This is a significant step toward resolving difficult, long-standing matters which do not reflect the company that we are today,' Glaxo chief executive officer Andrew Witty said in the statement. 'In recent years, we have fundamentally changed our procedures for compliance, marketing and selling in the U.S. to ensure that we operate with high standards of integrity and that we conduct our business openly and transparently.'
As is also usual, none of the reports included any acceptance of responsibility for the bad conduct by GSK or any of its leaders, and certainly they did not mention any negative consequences for any persons who might have authorized, directed, or implemented the misbehavior, even giving, as is apparently true in this case, that some of the behavior was at least alleged to be criminal.
A Settlement for a Knight?
It was not clear why this settlement was announced this early in such a preliminary, and vague manner. However, a post on the PharmaLot blog suggested one motivation:
As the calendar year draws to a close, the UK government is busy readying the next list of individuals who are to be honored as members of the Order of the British Empire. These honors are bestowed on people from all walks of life who have somehow made a difference in their community. And there are various types of awards, including knighthood, that recognize a different type of contribution.
The list, however, is a closely guarded secret. Presumably, even Rupert Murdoch employees would have a hard time hacking into the treasured line up of nominees. But one name that may be under consideration is Andrew Witty, the ceo at GlaxoSmithKline. Our sources say that Glaxo minions have been encouraged to find ways to hone his image in hopes that he becomes Sir Andrew.
So one could speculate that being able to clear up these "difficult, long-standing matters," could be touted as a task that only could be accomplished by a knight. That might have been plausible if Mr Witty recently rode into town on a white horse, and then dispatched these old legal demons.
Some More History
In fact, that is not what happened. Per his official GSK biography,
Andrew Witty became Chief Executive Officer of GlaxoSmithKline plc on 21 May 2008. He is a member of the Board and Corporate Executive Team.
Andrew joined Glaxo in 1985 and held a variety of Sales and Marketing roles in the UK business.
He has worked in the Company’s International New Products groups, both in the Respiratory and HIV/Infectious disease fields and has been involved in multiple new product development programmes.
He has also worked in South Africa, The USA and Singapore where he led the Group’s operations as Senior Vice President, Asia Pacific. While in Singapore Andrew was a Board Member of the Singapore Economic Development Board, the Singapore Land Authority and in 2003 he was awarded the Public Service Medal by the Government of Singapore.
In 2003 Andrew was appointed President of GSK Europe, and joined GSK’s Corporate Executive Team.
So he has been with GSK a long time. However, the misbehavior that the current settlement is apparently designed to resolve has been going on for a long time.
As we previously posted, Paxil (Seroxat in the UK, or paroxetine), was the anti-depressant whose marketing lead GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to settle allegations of fraud brought by then New York Attorney General Elliott Spitzer in 2004. That case included allegations of suppression and manipulation of clinical research, and was discussed in great detail in the book Side Effects by Alison Bass. We posted about various aspects of this case, e.g., more recently here, here, and here. The case continues to echo to this day: see this post by Alison Bass about attempts to have a questionable journal article that was used to market Paxil retracted.
Then there was Avandia (rosiglitazone), the anti-diabetic drug whose use was just restricted by the US Food and Drug Administration. This GlaxoSmithKline product inspired a "spin cycle" which provided us with endless grist for the Health Care Renewal mill. A good summary of the case appeared in September, 2010, in the British Medical Journal (Cohen D. Rosiglitazone: what went wrong: Brit Med J 2010; 341: 530-534. Link here) Once again, it appears that research was suppressed and manipulated (e.g., see here), Avandia critics were attacked by "experts" whose financial relationships with GSK were not always obvious (e.g., see here), and there were allegations that GSK executives tried to intimidate those who disagreed with them (e.g., see here and here). All this about Avandia came out after Mr Witty became President of GSK Europe and joined the Corporate Executive Team. While there is no reason to think he was directly responsible for any of it, as a member of this team, he ought to be accountable for the corporation's major actions, and misbehavior.
By the way, we posted last year about another settlement by GSK, in which a GSK subsidiary pleaded guilty to criminal charges for selling adulterated drugs, including a version of Paxil.
In the Washington Post report of the $3 billion settlement, there is this quote from Dr Sidney Wolfe,
'The size of the penalties, although large, are not as large as the money [the drug companies] make and so they keep doing it over again,' said Sidney M. Wolfe, director of Public Citizen’s health research group. 'The only way this is going to stop, or get reversed, is to greatly increase the size of the penalties or to start sending some of the executives to jail, if appropriate.'Summary
I have no idea whether there is evidence supporting criminal charges for any executives in this case. However, GSK and its leadership have not covered themselves in glory recently as shown by now three major legal settlements. I am just an American and not very knowledgeable about how the UK decides to dub people knights. However, in my humble opinion, it would be grotesque to honor the current CEO of GlaxoSmithKline with a knighthood based how his company has been lead since he became a member of its Executive Team in 2003.
I thus will end on my usual, repetitive note for such cases.... penalties that only appear to be (relatively small) costs of doing business are unlikely to deter future bad behavior. Until the people who actually authorized, directed and implemented the bad behavior have to suffer some negative consequences, expect the bad behavior to continue.
When it comes to health care's leadership, society seems to have acceded to defining deviancy down. Until we start holding health care leaders to high standards, expect their organizations not to uphold high standards. Further, expect organizations that did not uphold high standards in one instance to fail to uphold them in other instances.
ADDENDUM (18 November, 2011) - See additional posts on attempts to have Study 329, a particularly questionable study of Paxil, withdrawn on the Fear and Loathing in Bioethics blog, the Hooked: Ethics, Medicine and Pharma blog, and on the University Diaries blog.
ADDENDUM (21 November, 2011) - See also these posts on the call for the withdrawal of Study 329 on the Alison Bass blog, and the 1BoringOldMan blog.