Since 2010, the opioid epidemic has claimed over 20,000 American lives annually, but that hasn't stopped pharmaceutical companies from trying to make a buck by flooding the market with more deadly drugs. At least that's the case with Insys — a company that reportedly stooped to using fake cancer patients to boost sales of fentanyl, a highly addictive opioid that killed over 9,500 Americans in 2015 alone.
Insys is currently under a congressional investigation led by Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill (D), who recently discovered that the company doctored medical records in order to promote a highly dangerous fentanyl spray called Subsys. The spray was created to treat cancer patients with severe pain that was no longer responsive to conventional opioids. But when Insys found there weren't enough prescriptions to make money off the drug, they concocted fake cancer patients to boost sales.
Because Subsys is expensive, most insurers won't cover it unless a physician says it is necessary for treating extreme cancer symptoms. To work around that, Insys allegedly called insurance companies and tricked them into okaying the drug for non-cancer patients. The insurers thought they were speaking with someone from the office of the patient's doctor, but they were actually speaking with an Insys employee who was reading from a carefully worded script designed to dupe the insurers.
Basically, the employees misled insurance companies by mentioning symptoms associated with cancer, but avoided saying the word "cancer" during the call. That's how Subsys fell into the hands of Sarah Fuller, a New Jersey resident who was given the spray to treat her fibromyalgia and back pain. Senator McCaskill's investigation has turned up an audio recording in which an Insys employee misled her insurer (Envision) into approving the medication that claimed Fuller's life in 2016. Notice how the the caller -- who claims to be someone "with" Fuller's doctor -- carefully avoids saying the c-word during the conversation.
This isn't the first time that Insys has gotten into legal trouble, according to CNN. Last December, six former Insys executives (including a former CEO) were charged with pushing Subsys on patients through fraud and racketeering. The prosecutors allege that the six execs engaged in a "nationwide conspiracy to bribe medical practitioners to unnecessarily prescribe a fentanyl-based pain medication and defraud health care insurers."
The defendants have all pled not-guilty to the charges, unlike their former colleague Karen Hill. Last July, Hill, a former regional manager for Insys, pled guilty after being charged with giving kickbacks to doctors who prescribed Subsys to non-cancer patients.
But these are just a few bad apples according to Insys President CEO Saeed Motahari. "These mistakes and actions are not indicative of the people that are currently employed at Insys," he wrote in a letter to federal investigators earlier this month. He added that the company has "completely transformed its employee base over the last several years" and has "actively taken the appropriate steps to place ethical standards of conduct and patient interests at the heart of our business decisions."
Only time will tell if the investigation finds any more rotten fruit in the Insys barrel. Now if only there were a safer, non-lethal alternative to those deadly painkillers...