Pharma faces different type of drug trial

Healey suing Purdue, Lelling prosecuting Insys

WHITE-COLLAR CRIME may be conducted in executive suites or empty speaking halls, but its victims can all too quickly wind up in the same place as those killed by a knife or gun.

That’s one of the takeaways from a slew of ongoing cases against pharmaceutical companies accused of using sleazy or aggressive tactics to keep prescription pens flowing and sales figures up on dangerous opioids.

It can be hard to keep track of all the lawsuits and criminal cases. In today’s Boston Globe alone there are two stories and one column about pharmaceutical companies and their executives in the crosshairs of three different legal actions, and one story about the guilty plea of a heroin and fentanyl trafficker whose product killed a 34-year-old Melrose mother when she was fresh out of rehab at Taunton State Hospital.

Attorney General Maura Healey is suing OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, run by Richard Sackler, who allegedly “micromanaged sales reps to make sure they were raking in enough money,” writes Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham. A doctor who would prescribe Purdue’s opioids could be a windfall, and Purdue’s sales reps targeted the 100 most prolific prescribers about 200 times each, according to Abraham.

In federal court, US Attorney Andrew Lelling’s prosecutors are presenting evidence in the criminal trial against five former executives of Insys Therapeutics, maker of Subsys, a fentanyl spray.

If Purdue’s sales reps were persistent, the Insys sales force crossed the line into criminality, according to prosecutors, wooing doctors with bribes masked as speaking fees where the audience was beside the point, which was to keep those doctors prescribing.

“I don’t care if people show up,” the vice president of sales said when a sales rep asked what do if no one showed up.

The case against Insys founder John Kapoor and four others has gained national attention, perhaps because of the public’s thirst for the C-suite to face consequences for the opioid addiction pandemic. That national attention is also helped, no doubt, by the sordid details emerging from the Moakley Courthouse.

On Tuesday, former Insys sales rep Holly Brown recounted how during a boozy night out she had seen Sunrise Lee, who was a regional sales director, “bouncing around” in the lap of Dr. Paul Madison, who accounted for the majority of Subsys sales in Illinois. Lee, who is one of the defendants in the trial in Boston, had a background as a stripper and as manager of an escort service.

There are some general similarities between the public relations strategies employed by both Purdue and the former Insys executives. Kapoor’s lawyers have taken issue with the purported linkage between Insys and the opioid crisis and accused prosecutors of perpetuating a “false narrative” in public statements about the case while foisting all the blame for criminality at the company on a cooperating witness for the prosecution. Purdue, meanwhile, said that Healey has “mischaracterized and cherry-picked internal documents,” according to Abraham.

Purdue, whose founding family was dissected by The New Yorker a couple years ago, is fending off legal actions on multiple fronts.

On Wednesday, Somerville joined the ranks of cities suing drug makers for their role in the crisis of drug addiction. Defendants in the suit are Purdue, Johnson & Johnson, and retailer Walgreens. City solicitor Francis Wright Jr. said there is evidence that opioid manufacturers and distributors “created the extraordinary crisis we are experiencing in Somerville.”

In that case, the company has relied on the approval its opioid medications received by the Food and Drug Administration.

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Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

“We believe it is inappropriate for the city to substitute its judgment for the judgment of the regulatory, scientific, and medical experts at FDA,” the company said.

In the case of both Insys and Purdue, some of the figures are staggering. According to the Washington Post, more than 900 people have died while using Subsys since it was approved in 2012. Healey reports that, since 2009, 671 people who have filled prescriptions for Purdue opioids later died of opioid-related overdoses.