Earlier this week, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a new front in its effort to combat the opioid crisis and explicitly stated that it will deploy the False Claims Act (FCA) as part of its offensive. In a press release and parallel speech delivered by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on February 28, 2018, DOJ announced the creation of the Prescription Interdiction & Litigation (PIL) Task Force.

According to DOJ, the PIL Task Force will combat the opioid crisis at every level of the distribution system, from manufacturers to distributors (including pharmacies, pain management clinics, drug testing facilities and individual physicians). DOJ will use all available civil and criminal remedies to hold manufacturers accountable, building on its existing coordination with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to ensure proper labeling and marketing.  Likewise, DOJ will use civil and criminal actions to ensure that distributors and pharmacies are following US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) rules implemented to prevent diversion and improper prescribing. Finally, DOJ will use the FCA and other enforcement tools to pursue pain-management clinics, drug testing facilities and physicians that make opioid prescriptions. Continue Reading New DOJ Task Force to Take on Opioid Crisis Using the FCA and Other Enforcement Tools

In a two-page memorandum, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a broad policy statement prohibiting the use of agency guidance documents as the basis for proving legal violations in civil enforcement actions, including actions brought under the False Claims Act (FCA). The extent to which these policy changes ultimately create relief for health care defendants in FCA actions is unclear at this time. That said, the memo provides defendants with a valuable tool in defending FCA actions, either brought by DOJ or relator’s counsel, that attempt to use alleged noncompliance with agency sub-regulatory guidance as support for an FCA theory.

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The government’s focus on the US opioid crisis has been consistently expanding over the past year beyond manufacturers to reach prescribers and health care providers who submit claims to federal health care programs for opioid prescriptions. These efforts increasingly include investigations under the False Claims Act and administrative actions, in addition to the more traditional criminal approach to these issues.

With the Trump administration’s public health emergency orders, it is expected for the government’s enforcement activities, including those instigated by relators and their counsel, to grow in this area.

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As first reported in the National Law Journal, the US Department of Justice (DOJ), Civil Division, recently issued an important memorandum to its lawyers handling qui tam cases filed under the False Claims Act (FCA) outlining circumstances under which the United States should seek to dismiss a case where it has declined intervention and, therefore, is not participating actively in the continued litigation of the case against the defendant by the qui tam relator. Continue Reading DOJ Issues Memorandum Outlining Factors for Evaluating Dismissal of Qui Tam FCA Cases in Which the Government Has Declined to Intervene

On October 5, 2017, the State of New Jersey sued Insys Therapeutics, Inc. (Insys), alleging that the company improperly marketed and promoted the opioid-fentanyl painkiller drug, Subsys. The civil complaint (Complaint) follows a series of federal indictments (and in some cases guilty pleas), of several Insys employees and executives, as well as lawsuits and ongoing investigations being conducted by several states.

Like many other suits against drug manufacturers for improper marketing and promotion, the Complaint alleges violations of state consumer protection law (here, the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act). However, representative of a growing trend among the states, especially in the context of the country’s opioid epidemic, the Complaint also alleges a violation of state False Claims Acts (here, New Jersey’s False Claims Act). Manufacturers, physicians, pharmacies and others should closely review their compliance practices to anticipate such claims in light of the increased assertion of False Claims Act violations at the state level.

Echoing the allegations in other complaints against the company, the New Jersey complaint alleges that Insys improperly marketed Subsys in several ways. The Complaint alleges that, although the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Subsys only for the “single use of managing breakthrough cancer pain in patients who are tolerant to around-the-clock opioid therapy,” Insys directed its sales force to “peddle” Subsys to a broader patient population. For example, the Complaint alleges that Insys provided its sales force with “target lists ranking by deciles healthcare providers, including dentists and podiatrists, who could write prescriptions for controlled dangerous substances.” The Complaint alleges that: oncologists appeared at the bottom of these target lists, that a small percentage of the sales force was “oncology-specific,” and that the small group was disbanded shortly after Insys created it.

The Complaint also alleges that Insys “pushed” prescribers to prescribe Subsys on an inappropriate starting dosage above the FDA-mandated starting dose. For example, the Complaint alleges that: Insys’ tactics included emails from Insys executives requesting that members of the sales force explain lower-dose prescriptions, implementation of a “Switch” program designed to convert patients on high levels of competing products to the same high dosage of Subsys, a “Super Voucher” program to provide free Subsys prescriptions to prescribers, and “bribes” to prescribers alleged to be in the form of “speaker fees.”

In addition to three counts of violations of New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, the Complaint alleges that Insys’ conduct violated the False Claims Act. The Complaint alleges that Insys caused the submission of false claims for reimbursement of Subsys to several New Jersey state-run programs, including New Jersey’s State Health Benefits Program, School Employees’ Health Benefits Program and State Workers’ Compensation Program. The Complaint alleges that these submissions included allegedly false expressed and/or implied certification of compliance with federal and State law and medical necessity.

The case is Porrino v. Insys Therapeutics, Inc., Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Middlesex Vicinage.

Over the last several months, a handful of federal court decisions—including two rulings this summer on challenges to the admissibility of proposed expert testimony—serve as reminders of the importance of (and parameters around) fair market value (FMV) issues in the context of the Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) and the False Claims Act (FCA).

First, a quick level-set.  The AKS, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(b), is a criminal statute that has long formed the basis of FCA litigation—a connection Congress made explicit in 2010 by adding to the AKS language that renders any claim for federal health care program reimbursement resulting from an AKS violation automatically false/fraudulent for purposes of the FCA.  42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(g).  Broadly, the AKS prohibits the knowing and willful offer/payment/solicitation/receipt of “remuneration” in return for, or to induce, the referral of federal health care program-reimbursed business.  Remuneration can be anything of value and can be direct or indirect.  In interpreting the “in return for/to induce” element, a number of federal courts across the country have adopted the “One Purpose Test,” in which an AKS violation can be found if even just one purpose (among many) of a payment or other transfer of value to a potential referral source is to induce or reward referrals—even if that clearly was not the primary purpose of the remuneration. Continue Reading Recent Developments on the Fair Market Value Front – Part 1

In the fourth of a related set of qui tam False Claims Act (FCA) suits, the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted summary judgment in favor of generics manufacturer Par Pharmaceutical Companies (Par). The court’s August 17, 2017, opinion in U.S. ex rel. Lisitza et al v. Par Pharmaceutical Co, Inc. held that the relator had not presented sufficient evidence to support an implied certification theory of FCA liability.

Like its sister cases, the relator in Par Pharmaceutical alleged that the defendant caused the submission of false claims to the Medicaid program via an unlawful prescription-switching scheme. The alleged scheme involved manufacturing generic drugs in forms and dosage strengths that were atypical and not covered by existing Medicaid reimbursement limits, then marketing the drugs to pharmacies based on their higher reimbursement potential. The pharmacies would then fill the scripts with the more expensive forms and dosages manufactured by Par. The relators also alleged that the drugs were dispensed without physician approval and without meeting the medical necessity and economic requirements of governing state and federal Medicaid regulations, in violation of the FCA.

Continue Reading Par Pharmaceutical Beats FCA Prescription-Switch Allegations

On May 17, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal of a relator’s False Claims Act (FCA) claims predicated on allegations that Pfizer “improperly marketed Lipitor, a popular statin, as appropriate for patients whose risk factors and cholesterol levels fall outside the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Guidelines.”  In United States ex rel. Polansky v. Pfizer, Inc. the relator, Polansky, claimed that the Guidelines were incorporated into the drug’s FDA label and were thus mandatory.  He further alleged that Pfizer induced doctors to prescribe the drug outside the Guidelines, and induced pharmacists to fill such “off-label” prescriptions that were, in turn, reimbursed by government payors.  Polansky claimed that requests for reimbursement for these prescriptions impliedly, but falsely, certified that the prescriptions were for on-label uses.

The Second Circuit rejected the relator’s theory at its most basic level, finding that the Lipitor label did not mandate compliance with the NCEP Guidelines, which were clearly advisory in nature.  The fact that the Guidelines were mentioned in the label did not render them mandatory.  Quoting the district court, the Second Circuit wrote, “we cannot accept plaintiff’s theory that what scientists at the National Cholesterol Education Program clearly intended to be advisory guidance is transformed into a legal restriction simply because the FDA has determined to pass along that advice through the label.”  In short, the Second Circuit held that prescribing outside of the Guidelines was not an off-label use.

Because the fundamental premise of the relator’s claims disintegrated, the court did not need to wade into other challenges Pfizer had raised to the relator’s claims.  However, the court noted that it was “skeptical” of relator’s theory of liability as a broader legal matter, observing that “it is unclear just whom Pfizer could have caused to submit a ‘false or fraudulent’ claim: The physician is permitted to issue off-label prescriptions; the patient follows the physician’s advice, and likely does not know whether the use is off-label; and the script does not inform the pharmacy at which the prescription will be filled whether the use is on-label or off.  We do not decide the case on this ground, but we are dubious of Polanky’s assumption that any one of these participants in the relevant transactions would have knowingly, impliedly certificated that any prescription for Lipitor was an on-label use.”

The Polansky case is not the first time the Second Circuit has rejected an off-label marketing theory as a basis for liability.  In December 2012, in the case of United States v. Coronia, the court overturned, on First Amendment grounds, the criminal conviction (under the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act) of a pharmaceutical sales representative for promoting off-label use of a drug.

The Polansky court concluded its May 17 opinion by signaling that future FCA claims predicated on purported off-label marketing theories would receive serious scrutiny:

“The False Claims Act, even in its broadest application, was never intended to be used as a back-door regulatory regime to restrict practices that the relevant federal and state agencies have chosen not to prohibit through their regulatory authority. (quoting the district court).  It is the FDA’s role to decide what ought to go into a label, and to say what the label means, and to regulate compliance.  We agree with [the district court] that there is an important distinction between marketing a drug for a purpose obviously not contemplated by the label . . . and marketing a drug for its FDA-approved purpose to a patient population that is neither specified nor excluded in the label.”

The past three months have seen a flurry of advisory opinion activity from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG). The majority of this activity focuses on patient assistance programs (PAPs) as donors and organizations continue to have questions about OIG’s most recent PAP guidance. While none of these opinions or modifications are dramatically new on their face, together they provide valuable insight into the types of facts that can mitigate the OIG’s general concerns with tailored disease funds.

Typically, sponsored by pharmaceutical manufacturers and/or independent charity organizations with industry donors, PAPs provide financial assistance or free prescription drugs to low income individuals. Some PAPs are also structured to provide assistance to patients with a specific disease, like cancer or Crohn’s disease. As PAPs have the potential to be used by manufacturers to subsidize the purchase of their own products, or to improperly steer a patient’s drug selection, they can trigger scrutiny under the federal Anti-Kickback Statute (AKS) and Beneficiary Inducement Civil Monetary Penalty (CMP), among other laws. Not surprisingly, the OIG is more comfortable with bona fide charitable programs that are not drug-specific and that reflect other characteristics demonstrating a broad patient focus, rather than those reflecting a drug or pharmaceutical manufacturer focus.

Historically, the OIG has treated PAPs as important safety nets for patients who face chronic illnesses and high drug costs. The OIG issued a special advisory bulletin (SAB) in 2005 confirming that PAPs could help ensure patients had access to and could afford their medically necessary drugs. The OIG’s guidance evolved with its May 2014 SAB, which addressed the growing trend of independent charity PAPs establishing or operating specific disease funds that limit assistance to a subset of available products. The OIG articulated a concern with such PAPs, and indicated that it would view such programs as having a higher baseline risk of abuse when their assistance was limited to only a subset of available FDA-approved products for treatment of the disease. The OIG advised PAPs to define disease funds in accordance with widely recognized clinical standards and in a manner that covered a broad spectrum of products and manifestations of the disease (e.g., without reference to specific symptoms, drug stages, treatment types, severity of symptoms or other “narrowing” factors).

Consistent with this guidance, the OIG began issuing new advisory opinions and modifications of previous opinions in January 2015. The OIG’s opinions and modifications posted in the past three months are also consistent with this standard, but importantly add nuanced factors and exceptions that appear to show a more refined stance on specific disease funds. In December, the OIG posted a modification of Advisory Opinion 07-11, concerning a PAP that provided support for patients experiencing a specific symptom of cancer. In January, the OIG posted two new advisory opinions that addressed a PAP tailored to support patients with two specific diseases (a type of cancer and a type of chronic kidney disease) and a PAP providing support to needy patients with Stage 3 or Stage 4 of a specific disease, respectively. Also in January, the OIG posted a modification of Advisory Opinion 04-15, which addressed a PAP that maintained a disease fund limited to patients with certain metastatic cancers. While all of these specific disease funds may appear inconsistent with the OIG’s 2014 SAB, in each instance the OIG found that the tailored funds presented a low risk of abuse and merited a favorable opinion given the safeguards each employed.

In its Modification of Advisory Opinion 04-15, the OIG noted two factors that minimized the risk that the tailored disease fund could be leveraged by donors. First, the specific symptom of cancer was treatable by 62 different drugs made by 26 different manufacturers, so the program would not be supporting only one specific manufacturer or drug by tailoring its assistance to patients with the symptom. Second, and most importantly to the OIG, the PAP would not limit assistance through the fund just to drugs to treat that symptom; instead, the PAP would provide assistance for all medications prescribed for the qualifying patient’s underlying cancer and related symptoms. By certifying that the PAP would extend its support to underlying and related medical needs of patients with this symptom, the disease fund essentially agreed to expand the practical impact of the fund.

This “broadening” of support from otherwise narrowly defined disease funds can also be seen in the OIG’s other recent advisory opinions on the subject. In Opinions 15-16 and 15-17, for example, the OIG noted its favorable opinion was based in part on the PAPs’ representations that there were several different drugs made by various manufacturers currently available to treat each of the specific diseases and that the PAPs would, at a minimum, assist patients with all FDA-approved drugs to treat each disease (and, for the fund supporting patients with Stages 3 or 4 of the disease, would not limit the financial assistance to drugs expressly approved for advanced stages of the disease). In its Modification of Opinion 07-11, the PAP also noted that its support would not be limited to drugs expressly approved for the metastatic stage of the cancer. These opinions also include PAP certifications that if any of the PAP’s future disease funds would result in supporting only one FDA-approved drug treatment or one manufacturer, the PAP will also support the other medical needs of patients with the disease, including co-payment support for all prescription medication prescribed for the management and treatment of the patient’s disease (like pain and anti-nausea medications).

While the OIG continues to reiterate the potential risks posed by disease funds that are tailored to specific symptoms, severity of symptoms, method of drug administration, stages of a disease, or types of drug treatment, its recent opinions and modifications illustrate several exceptions to this general position. This recent flurry of OIG activity may be a good prompt for organizations with PAPs to review any specific disease funds in light of these most recent opinions.

After a First Circuit Court of Appeals panel restored a relator’s False Claims Act (FCA) suit against PharMerica, a long-term care pharmacy, the First Circuit denied the company’s petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc on Monday, January 25, 2016 in U.S. ex rel. Gadbois v. PharMerica Corp.   As a result, the relator will have another day in district court  to pursue his allegations that the company submitted false Medicare and Medicaid claims by seeking reimbursement for drugs provided without a legal prescription– this time to argue for a chance to supplement his pleading to cure a lack of subject matter jurisdiction under the first-to-file bar.

The December First Circuit panel decision, and the decision to let it stand, is significant because the court addressed a matter of first impression to the First Circuit, deciding that that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(d) is available to cure most defects in subject matter jurisdiction.  Here, the defect in question is triggered by the FCA’s first-to-file rule, which provides that if a lawsuit involving the same subject matter is already pending, “no person other than the Government may intervene or bring a related action based on the facts underlying the pending action.” 31 U.S.C. § 3730(b)(5).  The First Circuit stated that dismissals under the first-to-file rule should be without prejudice, allowing the claim to be refiled once the first-filed action is no longer pending.  By allowing relators in such situations to supplement their original pleadings, relators can now overcome the lack of subject matter jurisdiction and resuscitate their FCA claims.

In the district court, PharMerica sought to dismiss the amended complaint filed in 2011.  The district court agreed that the first-to-file bar barred the relator’s claims because a pending action in the Eastern District of Wisconsin was filed earlier, and thus dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  During the appeal briefing, however, as the First Circuit stated, “the tectonic plates shifted”; two events completely changed the legal landscape.  First, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Kellogg Brown & Root Services, Inc. v. United States ex rel. Carter, 135 S. Ct. 1970 (2015), interpreting the phrase “pending action” used in the first-to-file bar. The Supreme Court interpreted the statute to mean that “an earlier suit bars a later suit while the earlier suit remains undecided but ceases to bar that suit once it is dismissed.” Id.  Second, the Wisconsin lawsuit – the first-filed action that had served as the bar to the relator’s amended complaint under the first-to-file bar – was dismissed.

These two events, according to the First Circuit panel, “dissolved the jurisdictional bar that the court below found dispositive. Under the circumstances, it would be a pointless formality to let the dismissal of the second amended complaint stand — and doing so would needlessly expose the relator to the vagaries of filing a new action.”  The court thus held that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(d) – which allows a party to supplement a pleading to address “any transaction, occurrence, or event that happened after the date of the pleading to be supplemented” – could address subject matter jurisdiction defects, and stated that the relator could seek to supplement his complaint to address the dismissal of the Wisconsin case. Given the discretion granted to the district court under Rule 15, however, the panel remanded the case to the district court to decide whether to allow the relator to supplement the complaint.

This decision extends the reach of the Supreme Court’s decision in Carter weakening the first-to-file bar.  Cases dismissed on the basis of the first-to-file bar can potentially be revived months or years later after the first-filed case is dismissed.  The First Circuit’s decision thus increases the lack of finality that companies often face in FCA cases.  On a more general note, it shows the somewhat unique challenges that companies face defending against FCA cases.  Given that cases are often pending for years, the governing rules of the game can change at any point.   Relators are highly incentivized to litigate procedural and jurisdictional issues because of the huge potential recovery that awaits a successful FCA relator.  For this reason, defense against FCA claims should rarely proceed on a singular strategic focus, such as a procedural challenge to the relator’s complaint.