Last week, Bloomberg reminded us of the legal baggage that pharmaceutical giant Merck is carrying. The company had announced yet another settlement of legal actions pertaining to its ill-starred but very profitable sales of now withdrawn Vioxx (rofecoxib) in 2011 (see post here). Now the settlement, including a guilty plea was accepted by a judge.
A unit of Merck & Co. (MRK), the second- largest U.S. drugmaker, pleaded guilty to a criminal misdemeanor charge as part of a $950 million settlement of a U.S. government probe of its illegal marketing of the painkiller Vioxx.
An official of Merck Sharp & Dohme said today that the company agreed to plead guilty to one count of misbranding Vioxx. U.S. District Judge Patti Saris in Boston accepted the plea as part of the drugmaker’s agreement to pay a $321.6 million criminal fine and $628.3 million to resolve civil claims that it sold Vioxx for unapproved uses and improperly touted its safety.
'I’m certainly going to accept this agreement because I think it’s in the public interest,' Saris said from the bench. 'I hope the size of this settlement and the fact that all these cases are being pressed by the federal and state governments -- the 44 states’ attorneys general -- will be a signal that this isn’t acceptable conduct.'
But unacceptable conduct can lead to a great deal of revenue. As Bloomberg noted,
Approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1999, Vioxx became Merck’s third-largest-selling drug by 2003, generating $2.5 billion in annual sales. The company pulled Vioxx off the market in 2004 after a study found it posed an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.
It can also lead to a great deal of personal profit for those at the company tasked with defending such "unacceptable conduct," and what has now been found to be criminal behavior. Writing in Slate, Snigdha Prakash, who wrote All the Justice Money Can Buy about the legal aftermath of Vioxx, identified the current Merck CEO and board chairman as the architect of the defense of Vioxx, as
best known for his phenomenal success in defending a sordid chapter in Merck’s recent past—its years-long silence about the safety problems of the popular painkiller Vioxx.
Furthermore, she wrote,
As he showed with the Vioxx litigation, Frazier is adept at mounting a scorched-earth defense that minimizes payouts to potential plaintiffs.
Tens of thousands of former Vioxx users sued Merck after it withdrew the drug, alleging Vioxx had caused them to suffer heart attacks and strokes. Frazier, then the company’s general counsel, declared Merck had done nothing wrong and refused to settle. 'We’ll fight every case,' he declared, and hired top-flight law firms in several East Coast cities, in the South, in Chicago, and Los Angeles, as well as a prominent New York firm to coordinate the overall strategy. It took three years and $2 billion in legal expenses for Frazier’s hard-nosed tactics to pay off. Merck settled in late 2007 for a relative pittance, resolving some 50,000 Vioxx cases for just under $5 billion. It was a far cry from the $25 billion to $50 billion in liability that analysts had predicted when Merck withdrew the drug.
So it appears that Mr Frazier is now reaping his rewards. The Dow Jones News Service reported earlier in April,
Merck & Co.'s (MRK) leader received compensation valued at $13.3 million for 2011, up 41% from the year before, reflecting his ascension to the drug maker's top post and Merck's ability to exceed certain internal performance targets.
Kenneth Frazier, 57, became Merck's chief executive at the beginning of 2011 and chairman of the board in December. He was previously head of Merck's human health business.
In a proxy statement filed Thursday with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Merck said certain elements of Frazier's compensation reflected growth in Merck's sales and adjusted earnings for 2011.
In addition, Merck's board considered 'his performance, leadership, planning and oversight during a time of continued economic, regulatory and political challenges for the healthcare industry.'
Earlier this year, Frazier acknowledged that Merck had a tough 2011. The company endured setbacks including negative clinical data for a once-promising heart drug, vorapaxar. Merck's full-year stock price performance lagged behind most of its large-pharmaceutical peers.
But Merck of Whitehouse Station, N.J., continued to cut costs and was able to raise its dividend for the first time in seven years in 2011. Frazier said in January he was optimistic about 2012.
Frazier's total compensation included: $1.5 million in salary, $3.1 million in stock awards, $3 million in option awards, $3.1 million in non-equity incentive plan compensation, and $2.6 million change in pension value and non-qualified deferred compensation earnings.
So somehow a "tough 2011" for Merck's stockholders (Merck's stock price rose a mere 3.9%, from 36.29 to 37.70 through 2011) resulted in a cornucopia of riches for Mr Frazier. So rather than being rewarded for "maximizing shareholder value," (see post here) maybe Mr Frazier was rewarded for, as Ms Prakash put it, "burying monumental corporate failures at Merck."
Here is the latest version of how top health care organizational insiders manage to make even more money no matter what, in this case, no matter what happens to the fortunes of the nominal owners of the company, no matter what happens to the company's once proud reputation, and particularly no matter what happened to the patients unfortunate enough to suffer adverse effects from its drug.
We will not be able to truly reform health care, to really improve outcomes, improve access, and control costs, until we hold the leaders of health care organizations accountable.