Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Business

GlaxoSmithKline settlement unzips Tampa whistle-blower's lips

TAMPA — Blair Hamrick left for Colorado in 1993, an ambitious University of Tampa graduate headed for a six-figure job as a pharmaceutical sales rep.

He returned with no job, no money, no explanation.

"I come back with my tail between my legs, can't tell anybody why, and people say, 'What's wrong with him?' " he said.

Now the truth is out: Hamrick was one of the GlaxoSmithKline whistle-blowers whose firsthand revelations about off-label prescription drug marketing helped lead to the historic $3 billion settlement announced Monday.

"I promise you, I never lost confidence this would be resolved," said Hamrick, now 48. "I just didn't know it would last 11 years and cost me everything."

Hamrick and fellow whistle-blower Greg Thorpe first reported complaints about the pharmaceutical's marketing practices to managers in 2001. In 2003, they filed a complaint with the federal government, which kept it under seal during an investigation. That meant Hamrick could not tell his family or prospective employers why he returned to Tampa. "It's been a dark cloud over my head," said Hamrick, a 1982 Plant High School graduate whose late father retired as a lieutenant colonel out of MacDill Air Force Base.

His complaint contained a number of allegations, most notably including marketing drugs for off-label uses. Pharmaceutical companies can't market drugs for uses that haven't been approved by the federal government.

Early in his tenure at Glaxo- SmithKline, Hamrick said he convinced himself that the marketing strategies they used on doctors would ultimately benefit patients.

But as the years went on, he had his doubts — and grew emboldened. "Once you realize what you're doing could cause more harm than good, you say to yourself 'This is wrong,' " he said.

He said he was fired in 2004. Divorced, he brought his then- 8-year-old son back to Tampa. They rented a small house before eventually moving back into his late mother's home.

While his case was pending, Hamrick worked as a substitute high school teacher for a few years. He also sold medical devices. He is now unemployed.

Hamrick would go months without talking to his attorneys, but he didn't go a day without thinking about his case. He read everything he could find about the drug industry. He reviewed documents he stacked around his home. He grew more skeptical about the industry. "I think (pharmaceutical) representatives can behave ethically," he said. "I just question if upper management will allow them to do what is ethical and right."

The settlement does not resolve one big issue: The payout for whistle-blowers. Of the $3 billion settlement, $1.04 billion in civil fines is connected to Hamrick's case, according to his attorneys. Whistle-blowers in similar cases often receive 15 to 25 percent of the civil fine. The government will recommend the percentage.

Hamrick said he regrets the impact of his decision on his son, Kraig, now 17. But he also feels vindicated, comparing his plight to that of one of the prisoners in Plato's allegory of the cave. He said he left the cave and saw reality but could tell no one.

"Once you break away out of the cave and see the light, you realize there's more going on," he said. "You can't go back."

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