LET’S TALK WHISTLEBLOWER FALLOUT

Last week, Mallinckrodt was in the news again facing claims an acquired company, Questor, paid off doctors for scripts. The drug in question is Acthar Gel, which is indicated for the treatment of multiple conditions including lupus, MS, infant spasms, Rheumatoid arthritis, and many more. Mallinckrodt has faced similar legal obstacles due to significant price hikes of its opioids in the past.

Questcor was acquired by Mallinckrodt in 2014. Two whistleblowers are claiming that Questcor paid doctors to increase the sales of Acthar Gel. These allegations first came to light in 2012. There are also claims that threats of retaliation were made against employees who even mentioned speaking up. Now, the U.S. Department of Justice is involved.

In 2017, both companies were accused by Medicare Advantage Organizations of preventing a competitor from coming to market. After that, they raised the price of Acthar from $40 per vial to $34,000 over six years. This is not dissimilar to Mylan’s price hike of the EpiPen that was in the news in 2016.

There are many news outlets covering this story, but that is not what this blog is about. When stories like this emerge, Pharma/Biotech/Medical Device companies garner a bad reputation from the public. The focus tends to skew towards the negative, when the majority of the people working for these companies are doing so much positive work.

Thousands of employees work for Mallinckrodt and all are being affected by these accusations. They will all wear the cloak of guilt, even though only a few people may be behind this scandal. This subject is likely dominating every conversation that is occurring in the field right now, whether it be a sales rep, an MSL, or a member of the marketing team. I know, I have personal experience with these situations.

Early in my career, I worked for a company that made a product that was only approved for use with its sister brand of products. However, the sales team was made aware that this product (Product X) was extremely efficacious with our competitor’s brands as well.

During a National Sales Meeting, a senior member of the marketing team encouraged us to ask doctors to try Product X with our competitors if they weren’t going to prescribe our brand. We did and doctors love it.

Fast forward to the next sales meeting, the “ask” was elevated. Now the request was to use double stick tape and adhere our product to that of our competitors. We were even asked to report every day to our managers how many times we did this. A contest was created to reward those who achieved the greatest number.

I don’t mean to brag, but I went through more rolls of double-sided tape than most. Here’s the rub. I had NO IDEA I was doing anything wrong.

We get to the next sales meeting and we are informed that we need to discontinue this practice. There was a legal claim against us stating that we were defacing the product of our competitor. We were, but it was never explained to me that this was a legal issue. If I had realized this, I never would have done it.

It’s important to note that this was in the late ‘90’s before rigorous compliance protocols were established and reinforced. Therefore, this poor behavior was less a reflection of the industry, and more a reflection of processes that were missing. Today, no member of a life science organization can be employed without ongoing compliance training in both a live and virtual setting

This conversation dominated many of my future sales interactions. I felt like I had been lied to. I was being made to engage in multiple controversial conversations every day for doing my job.

The worst of it all was reading an article in a prominent industry journal featuring a senior director of marketing. This was the same person who stood on stage telling us to use the tape. He stated that he had no knowledge of the practices of the sales teams and that all have been instructed to discontinue. As I read, I felt the bus approaching me.

I mention this because finger pointing happens all too often. And, it also happens far outside the walls of life science companies. A few people will be responsible for an idea, and they employ an army of people to carry out their plans. This army may be unknowingly violating a law. The mud is slung on the army, rarely the commander.

Whistleblower cases in life science companies attract a lot of media attention. I am personally thankful to these brave individuals who are willing to step up and call out bad behavior. If it wasn’t for these individuals, we would still be operating under the loose compliance guidelines and open purse strings most notable from the ‘80’s and ‘90’s.

I also want to direct attention to the vast majority of individuals in organizations who wake up every day hoping to bring relief to more patients. They are operating in full compliance with the law and have done nothing wrong. Organizations need to do a better job of recognizing the people who are on the front lines of communication, the first into battle. They need to be shown appreciation.

There will continue to be news of bad practices across every industry, but we cannot let this overshadow the great work being done. The next time you hear a breaking story in the news, especially if it’s your competitor, be curious rather than accusatory. You never know if a story about your company will soon bubble to the surface.