A doctor who filed a whistleblower suit against the British pharmaceutical company Reckitt Benckiser Group after growing concerned about marketing and sales practices of the company’s opioid-based narcotics addiction treatment Suboxone Film has helped the U.S. reach a $1.4 billion settlement.
Unfortunately, the record-breaking settlement was a post-mortem victory for Dr. Stuart Finkelstein, who ran an addiction rehabilitation practice in California and used to prescribe and promote Suboxone until he discovered company representatives allegedly lied to him about the drug’s addictive qualities. He filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Reckitt under the False Claims Act in 2012 but died last year in a scuba diving accident.
Dr. Finkelstein’s lawsuit was one of six whistleblower cases covered by the deal between Reckitt and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The lawsuits alleged that the drugmaker promoted Suboxone to doctors who prescribed the drug to patients who didn’t need it, putting patients’ lives in danger and causing government health care programs to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in false claims.
The whistleblower complaints also alleged that Reckitt falsely claimed that the under-the-tongue Suboxone film was less likely to be abused and resold on the streets and in other illegal markets than similar sublingual opioid products.
Dr. Finkelstein originally thought Suboxone was a promising drug for his patients and became actively involved in Reckitt’s marketing and promotional campaign, serving as a “physician treatment advocate.” He was trained by Reckitt-paid physicians who told him that the risk of patients becoming addicted to Suboxone was nonexistent or extremely low.
But Dr. Finkelstein immediately quit Reckitt’s payroll and stopped prescribing the drug in 2010 after Suboxone-hooked patients showed up at his clinic while other patients to whom he prescribed the drug complained about its addictive effects.
Under the terms of the settlement, Reckitt agreed to pay $700 million to settle claims that its marketing of Suboxone resulted in the submission of false claims to federal and state health care programs.
Reckitt also agreed to forfeit $647 million of proceeds from its spinoff company Indivior. That company, formed in 2014, faces a separate criminal indictment accusing it of making billions by falsely touting Suboxone Film as a more child-proof and less addictive version of the drug’s tablet form when it was simply a reformulation. That indictment also seeks a $3 billion criminal penalty from Reckitt.
Further, Reckitt agreed to pay $50 million to settle the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) claims that it violated federal antitrust laws by thwarting generic competition for Suboxone.
According to Law 360, Dr. Finkelstein and his lawyer debated whether to pursue Reckitt with a class action lawsuit or a False Claims Act complaint. They decided that a class action could recover some of the money but it wouldn’t attract the involvement of the federal government like a False Claims Act case potentially would.
By getting the backing of the DOJ, they knew that the lawsuit wouldn’t just recover the money, it would more effectively put a stop to the drug maker’s unlawful activity and spare patients from the grips of opioid addiction.
And judging by the size of the settlement – the largest-ever payout by a drug company for its involvement in fueling the opioid crisis – Reckitt is unlikely to resume aggressive and unlawful opioid marketing schemes in the future. The company anticipated settling the matter for $400 million – the amount it put aside. But that turned out to be a fraction of the $1.4 billion settlement amount, which will strike Reckitt’s bottom line in a meaningful way. Last year the company raked in about $1 billion in global revenues.
According to Law360, past settlements between government regulators and pharmaceutical companies have been too small to make any real impact, and a judgment or settlement that truly hurts the companies engaging in unlawful opioid marketing and fraud is something that is needed to combat the opioid crisis.
Some legal experts say the Reckitt’s record settlement is likely a harbinger of more opioid-related lawsuits and bigger settlements.
Beasley Allen has an Opioid Litigation Team, which includes these lawyers: Rhon Jones, Parker Miller, Ryan Kral, Rick Stratton, Will Sutton and Jeff Price. This team represents the State of Alabama, the State of Georgia, and numerous local governments, as well as other entities in opioid multdistrict litigation (MDL). They also handle individual claims on behalf of victims.