Several high ranking officials at drug maker Insys Therapeutics have been found guilty of racketeering conspiracy by a Boston court on Wednesday.
Company founder John Kapoor was one of five defendants accused by the federal government of operating a nationwide bribery scheme related to opioid use.
Kapoor and his cohorts purportedly paid several doctors to prescribe Insys' opioid medication to patients. They then misled insurance companies about the company's fentanyl-based painkiller to make sure that the drug would be covered. Their scam ran from 2012 to 2015.
The verdict is expected to help strengthen other government cases against drug makers implicated in the going opioid crisis in the United States.
"Today's convictions mark the first successful prosecution of top pharmaceutical executives for crimes related to the illicit marketing and prescribing of opioids," said Andrew E. Lelling, U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts.
"Just as we would street-level drug dealers, we will hold pharmaceutical executives responsible for fueling the opioid epidemic by recklessly and illegally distributing these drugs, especially while conspiring to commit racketeering along the way."
Bribing Doctors To Prescribe Opioids
During the hearing, federal prosecutors alleged that money was the main motivator behind the Insys bribery scam, and that the defendants were willing to put patients' lives at risk if it meant improving the company's bottomline.
The government claimed that Kapoor and his associates followed a two-step approach to help improve the sale of company's opioid painkiller, Subsys.
Insys would first pay doctors to prescribe Subsys to their patients. The drug maker would then mislead insurance companies so that they would still cover the fentanyl-based painkiller.
The defendants specifically targeted doctors who already had a history of prescribing opioids to their patients liberally. The company would invite these physicians to take part in its "speakers program," where they would reportedly be paid handsomely for prescribing Subsys to as many attendees as they could.
This scheme resulted in patients being prescribed the opioid drug even though they did not really need it, according to prosecutors
The drug maker also established a call center, where Insys employees would pretend to be representatives from doctors' offices. They would report fake diagnoses to make sure that insurance firms would include Insys' opioid drug in their coverage, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars to use every month.
In all, the government presented 39 witnesses to support its case.
Meanwhile, the defense team managed to produce only a few witnesses to counter the prosecution. One of the witnesses was a patient who vouched for the effectiveness of Subsys. He said the drug helped reduce his pain following a vehicular accident.
Defense attorneys highlighted Kapoor's personal story, where they claimed that he was motivated to develop the opioid medication after seeing his now-deceased wife, Editha Kapoor, suffer from severe pain.
They argued that Kapoor was not aware of any of the illegal schemes, instead placing the blame on former Insys employees including ex-Vice President of Sales Alec Burlakoff.
Burlakoff and other former company execs had already pleaded guilty to the accusations. They testified for the government in exchange for more leniency in their sentencing.
The defense team emphasized Burlakoff's tendency to lie in his statements, as well as his apparent hatred for Kapoor, which government investigators were able to catch on tape.
Kapoor is one of the highest-ranking pharma execs to be tried in relation to the ongoing opioid epidemic in the United Staes.
In 2018, Insys Therapeutics announced that it has reached a $150 million settlement with the Justice Department to end an investigation regarding the inappropriate sales of opioid painkillers by former company employees.