Sammy Almashat, M.D., M.P.H, Charles Preston, M.D., M.P.H,
Timothy Waterman, B.S., Sidney Wolfe, M.D.
Public Citizen’s Health Research Group
U.S. spending on prescription drugs has increased from $40 billion in 1990 to $234 billion in 2008. In this era of rapidly rising drug costs, the illegal pharmaceutical company activities that have contributed to such inflated spending have garnered a significant amount of media attention. Recent billion-dollar settlements with two of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, Eli Lilly and Pfizer, provide evidence of the enormous scale of this wrongdoing. However, the total size, varied nature, and potential impact of these illegal and potentially dangerous activities have not been previously analyzed. This study examined trends from 1991 to the present in federal and state criminal and civil actions against pharmaceutical companies in order to address these questions.
The purpose of this study was to compile a comprehensive database of all major criminal and civil settlements between federal and state governments and pharmaceutical companies. Press releases from both federal and state governments, in addition to existing online databases, were used to identify all settlements of at least $1 million during the past 20 years.
- Of the 165 settlements comprising $19.8 billion in penalties during this 20-year interval, 73 percent of the settlements (121) and 75 percent of the penalties ($14.8 billion) have occurred in just the past five years (2006-2010).
- Four companies (GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Eli Lilly, and Schering-Plough) accounted for more than half (53 percent or $10.5 billion) of all financial penalties imposed over the past two decades. These leading violators were among the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.
- While the defense industry used to be the biggest defrauder of the federal government under the False Claims Act (FCA), a law enacted in 1863 to prevent defense contractor fraud, the pharmaceutical industry has greatly overtaken the defense industry in recent years. The pharmaceutical industry now tops not only the defense industry, but all other industries in the total amount of fraud payments for actions against the federal government under the False Claims Act.
- The practice of illegal off-label promotion of pharmaceuticals has been responsible for the largest amount of financial penalties levied by the federal government over the past 20 years. This practice can be prosecuted as a criminal offense because of the potential for serious adverse health effects in patients from such activities.
- Deliberately overcharging state health programs, mainly Medicaid fraud, has been the most common violation against state governments and is responsible for the largest amount of financial penalties levied by these governments. This type of violation is also the main factor in the considerable increase in state settlements with pharmaceutical companies over time.
- Former pharmaceutical company employees and other “whistleblowers” have been instrumental in bringing to light the most egregious violations and have been responsible for initiating the largest number of federal settlements over the past 10 years. From 1991 through 2000, qui tam (whistleblower) cases made up only 9 percent of payouts to the government, but from 2001 through 2010, they comprised 67 percent of total payouts.
Over the past two decades, especially during the past 10 years, there has been a marked increase in both the number of government settlements with pharmaceutical companies and the size of the accompanying financial penalties. The reasons for these increases are likely related to a combination of increased violations by companies and increased enforcement on the part of federal and state governments.
The danger to public safety and the loss of state and federal dollars that comes with these violations require a more robust response than the government’s current practices. Given the relatively small size of current financial penalties when compared to the perpetrating companies’ profits, both increased financial penalties and appropriate criminal prosecution of company leadership may provide a more effective deterrent to unlawful behavior by the pharmaceutical industry.