AstraZeneca $520 Million Settlement Underlines the Greed Over Good Mentality Within the Pharmaceutical Industry

Talk about a story having legs, in a December 2009 post titled “Antipsychotic Prescriptions . . . for Children: Is the Medicaid Story Today’s Version of Go Ask Alice?” I  wrote about the startling revelation that the prescription of anti psychotic drugs to children between the ages of 3 and 17 was at an all time high.

Representing the largest single Medicaid expenditure in 2006 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), an astounding $7.9 billion for these drugs were processed through the system.  Even more disturbing was the fact that children coming from lower-income families were four-times more likely to be prescribed an anti-psychotic, than those children whose families had private coverage.

Then on March 25th, 2010 I posted a story under the heading “Antipsychotic Drug Misuse Lands Johnson & Johnson on the Wrong End of Federal Suit,” in which the pharmaceutical giant was taking heat for a practice known as off-label selling in which a drug (Risperdal in this case) is promoted for use in treating an illness for which it was not originally approved by the FDA.

It is important to note that it is not uncommon through a trial and error process for a physician to discover that a drug approved to treat ailment A is effective in treating ailment B, and therefore prescribe it accordingly.

It is illegal however, for a drug company to promote directly or through physician incentives said drug’s use to treat an illness for which it was not originally approved.

This is especially true in the Johnson & Johnson case as “there has been no physician case references or published materials regarding the effectiveness of Risperdal in treating dementia (ailment B) in senior citizens who did not suffer from psychosis (ailment A).

Add into the equation a November 24th, 2009 News Release from the Stanford School of Medicine titled 14 drugs identified as most urgently needing study for off-label use, Stanford professor says, in which antidepressants and anti psychotics are identified as “the most prominent classes of drugs on a list, which specifically targets drugs that have high levels of off-label use without good scientific backing,” coupled with a reported increased risk of death in seniors who take them, and a disturbing picture begins to emerge.

Now with another industry giant, AstraZeneca, knowingly and flagrantly disregarding the law and acknowledging that they paid doctors a kickback as “part of an illegal scheme to market drugs for unapproved uses to children, the elderly, veterans and prisoners,” I would be hard pressed to view this fine as being anything more to the company than a normal cost of doing business.  Given pharmaceutical industry profits, this assessment isn’t a stretch.

As presented during my January 6th interview with NHPPA president Shawn Buckley, there is no doubt that the Pharmaceutical Industry is a behemoth sector with incredible financial resources.  This is based on the fact that according to a 1995 study, in the 8 years ending in 1995 profits before taxes, or shareholder equity, was 29.6% for the pharmaceutical market compared to 10.2% for all other Canadian industries.

A December 7th, 2004 article titled “Excess in the pharmaceutical industry,” which appeared in the Canadian Medical Journal web site, as well as other articles by Marcia Angell disclosed the following:

“In 2002, as the economic downturn continued, big pharma showed only a slight drop in profits—from 18.5 to 17.0 percent of sales. The most startling fact about 2002 is that the combined profits for the ten drug companies in the Fortune 500 ($35.9 billion) were more than the profits for all the other 490 businesses put together ($33.7 billion).  In 2003 profits of the Fortune 500 drug companies dropped to 14.3 percent of sales, still well above the median for all industries of 4.6 percent for that year. When I say this is a profitable industry, I mean really profitable.  It is difficult to conceive of how awash in money big pharma is.”

In the end, perhaps having a buyer beware attitude when it comes to making decisions regarding one’s own health care, as well as that of their family’s may likely be the best prescription to follow.  Now where is Jeff Knott, the author of the critically acclaimed book “Navigating The Healthcare Maze?”

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