The U.S. Attorney's Office has filed a lawsuit against a pharmaceutical company accusing at least six Florida doctors of participating in phony conferences and taking thousands of dollars in kickbacks.
The Tallahassee doctors — who are not charged and are not named in the civil lawsuit — are among dozens implicated in an alleged national scheme by Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. to encourage doctors to prescribe certain brand-name drugs to treat diabetes, hypertension and other maladies.
The suit accuses doctors of teaching or attending several conferences that were little more than extravagant social events, including lavish dinners and fishing trips off the coasts of Florida and Alaska.
Florida and 27 other states are party to the suit, which also accuses the doctors of bilking Medicaid — the state-run health insurance for the poor — by overprescribing Novartis drugs.
Drug companies for years have paid doctors to speak about new drugs at educational meetings with other doctors, a practice that is legal though widely viewed as questionable.
Novartis, in some cases, didn't even pretend to give educational information, the suit alleges.
"Novartis held thousands of speaker programs all over the country at which few or no slides were shown and the doctors who participated spent little or no time discussing the drug at issue," the suit states. "Instead, Novartis simply wined and dined the doctors at high-end restaurants with astronomical costs, as well as in sports bars, on fishing trips, and at other venues not conducive to an educational program."
Many of the conferences were held at the Hooters restaurant chain.
Novartis, a New Jersey company, denies the lawsuit's claims.
"Physician-speaker programs are an accepted practice designed to inform physicians about an appropriate use of medicines," states a media release from the company.
Among other allegations in the suit:
• Novartis paid one Tallahassee doctor between $50,000 and $75,000 for speeches he mostly did not give between 2003 and 2011.
• Novartis paid another doctor $3,750 for giving the same speech five times in a nine-month period, with the same four doctors attending each time.
• The doctors repeatedly took turns in the role of speaker and student, attending programs of the same topic they had spoken about. Overall, Novartis' data show the same six Tallahassee doctors attended the same program 23 times in six months.
"Education was a very small part of the (events)," the suit states. "The doctors talked mostly about other things."
The federal anti-kickback law makes it a felony for doctors to accept bribes in exchange for recommending a drug or service covered by Medicare or Medicaid.
The federal government has previously sued Novartis under the law.
As part of the 2010 settlement, the company promised to straighten up.
The new suit states Novartis continued to host suspicious conferences that seemed to result in attendees billing Medicare and Medicaid for high amounts of Novartis drugs — such as Lotrel and Valturna — which treat cardiovascular problems.
Lee Lasris, attorney for the Florida Health Law Center, said Florida and other states likely signed on to the suit to try to recover money lost from Medicaid, which is partially paid for by the state.
Florida also bans pharmaceutical kickbacks, he added, although these cases often play out entirely at the federal level.
"In some cases, maybe the patient needed the drug. Maybe it was borderline and an exercise routine would have worked just as well," Lasris said.