Pfizer has settled with the Justice Department, agreeing to pay $2.3 billion in civil and criminal penalties. It's a big deal, but for whom? Hidden behind the settlement are the thousands of people who have suffered and died because of Pfizer's drugs and marketing, but they won't get a thing. I just don't get a warm and fuzzy over this. Watching the posturing of government officials as they pose for the cameras with their serious faces and proclamations looks like business as usual.
Can't you picture them, huddled together, worried about the public's growing awareness of pharmaceutical corruption, trying to figure out how to make it look like they're doing something to protect us? Let's listen:
"Mr. X at Mega Pharmaceuticals is threatening to pull their support for my candidate's campaign. We've gotta do something!"
"Yeah, but those news reports about drugs being pushed for stuff they're not approved for…"
"I know, I know! But they've got us over a barrel. If we don't do something, my guy won't get reelected. We need to make it look like something's being done. Get the public's attention off this stuff — make it look like we're protecting 'em from Big Pharma."
"I've got an idea. Mega's got a ton of money for marketing, right? It's part of the cost of doing business. Let's see if they'll go along with a big fine. Y'know, a coupla billion. That looks like big bucks to most folk."
"Not bad…yeah. Let's do it. We'll make a big production of it — get our pictures in the papers. Be good guys. Uh…do ya think Mega Pharmaceuticals will go along?!
"Sure! They'll act contrite, put on a big show, and find a way to raise prices to cover it. No harm done. It's just a cost of doing business."
Think it sounds far-fetched? Let's put it in perspective. This year, Pfizer agreed to purchase another pharmaceutical giant, Wyeth, for — sit down, hold your breath — $68 billion. What's $2.3 billion to them? In fact, they didn't even try to act contrite over their misdeeds.
This is the fourth time in a single decade that Pfizer has been fined for illegal marketing. The new settlement is the biggest ever. It's for marketing drugs, especially Bextra, for conditions that were never approved by the FDA. It's legal for doctors to do this, but not for drug companies to push their products for that purpose.
The primary drug in question, Bextra, is a COX inhibitor, like Vioxx, which is alleged to have killed tens of thousands. It had been approved to treat menstrual cramps and arthritis. However, Pfizer's sales force claimed it could treat severe surgical pain and be used at far higher doses, in spite of higher doses increasing its risks.
Geodon, Zyvox, and Lyrica, all exceptionally heavy-duty drugs with astoundingly dangerous side effects, were also marketed illegally. All levels of the corporation were involved in the deceit. Most of the illegal marketing efforts were taking place at the same time that Pfizer was fined for doing exactly the same thing with Neurontin.
John Kopchinski, a Gulf War veteran and former Pfizer sales rep who was one of the whistleblowers, said, "In the Army I was expected to protect people at all costs. At Pfizer I was expected to increase profits at all costs, even when sales meant endangering lives.
"I couldn't do that," added Kopchinski, 45, who was fired by Pfizer in March of 2003.
The government's greatest concern wasn't the potential harm to patients. That never figured. It was the loss of money to Medicare and Medicaid.
"These agreements bring final closure to significant legal matters and help to enhance our focus on what we do best—discovering, developing and delivering innovative medicines to treat patients dealing with some of the world's most debilitating diseases," said Amy Schulman, Vice President and General Counsel for Pfizer. There isn't even any contrition, let alone acknowledgment of wrongdoing. Nope—Pfizer's just moving on, as if nothing had happened.
Patients Get Nothing
There's more about this deal that bothers me: $1.2 billion is a criminal fine. (Some sources state that it's $1.3 billion.) That means it goes into the big pool of money the government holds — you know, the stuff that was sent off in the trillions to banks. Six corporate whistleblowers will share $102 million. That's nice, but they aren't the ones whose lives were forever harmed by the drug pushing. One billion is civil penalties to reimburse Medicare and Medicaid. That money will be distributed to states for Medicaid. It's a good place for money, but how does that help the people whose lives were wrecked?
What Does This Say About Priorities?
New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo said,
Pfizer ripped off New Yorkers and taxpayers across the country to pad its bottom line. Pfizer's corrupt practices went so far as sending physicians on exotic junkets as well as wining and dining health care professionals to persuade them to prescribe the company's drugs for patients in taxpayer-funded programs.
Is anything going to happen to the doctors who took that money? What about the people at Pfizer who did this? Or their CEO, who is ultimately responsible? Nothing. Absolutely nothing will happen to them. They'll serve no prison time for crimes equivalent to assault and murder.
People died. That's what's missing in these games. It all comes down to money. The government's concern is all about lucre. Not a single thing has been done to stop Pfizer or any other pharmaceutical firm from pushing poisons, from turning something that should be a service into the world's biggest shell game.
It all comes down to the same problem of health care being supplied by corporate entities. It's twisted thinking, placing profits over lives.
The Coup de Grace
It turns out that Pfizer had already taken the loss. They wrote off $2.3 billion in the last quarter of last year. This is all history to them. They've already moved on.
Amy Schulman, Pfizer's spokesperson for this event, said, "The reasons to trust Pfizer are because, as I have walked the halls at Pfizer, you would see that the vast majority of our employees spend their lives dedicated to bringing truly important medications to patients and physicians in an appropriate manner."
Nope—no warm fuzzies over that.