Abbott Sales Reps Accused of Rifling Through Patients' Medical Records

Last Updated Dec 8, 2010 6:52 PM EST

Kos Pharmaceuticals -- now a unit of Abbott Labs (ABT) -- gave kickbacks to doctors for "chart pull" sessions, in which doctors' assistants went through confidential medical records looking for patients who could be switched to Abbott's Niaspan anti-cholesterol drug, according to court documents in a $41 million settlement the Department of Justice announced yesterday.

Drug companies gaining illicit access to private medical records is a sinister trend in pharmaceutical marketing: Amgen has been accused three times of doing the same thing. Gaining access to patients' data wihout their consent is a violation of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. But it appears that the goldmine that patients' records represent to drug companies was too much of a temptation for Abbott's Kos sales force in Louisiana.

According to one of the complaints behind the settlement, sales executives at Kos paid a doctor to go through 202 of his patient records, looking for Niaspan candidates (click to enlarge):

The effort had a certain cajun flavor to it, the complaint alleged. "Nobody cares about the merits of your product down here," one sales chief is quoted as saying. "We're gonna go back to the old ways of doing business at Kos":

Those sales chiefs are probably identifiable to anyone who worked at Kos in the 2002-2004 timeframe.* As identified in the criminal information sheet filed by the feds, they are:
  • Executive A, the vp in charge of the Kos nationwide salesforce.
  • Executive B, the director in charge of the Kos sales force southeastern region.
  • Executive C, the manager in charge of the Kos sales force New Orleans district, which included all of Louisiana.
Their names are likely inside one of the whistleblower complaints behind the settlement, but that lawsuit is currently still sealed. One potential reason the feds kept their names out of the settlement papers, and kept the seal on the case, is because it is considering further action.

The Kos folks were generous with their money. They paid $250 for every 10 new Niaspan patients doctors recruited, and $750 for 20 more. In 2002 and 2003, physicians "A" and "B" received $214,500 in the form of continuing medical education fees from Kos. In return, the docs wrote more than 1,000 prescriptions a year, sometimes at the rate of more than three per day, and promoted the drug to other doctors who attended their classes.

Abbott bought Kos in 2006 to acquire Niaspan, which currently makes $250 million per quarter in sales. Presumably the new parent company has since introduced some adult supervision down on the Bayou.

*BNET readers who may know the names of these folks are encouraged to email them anonymously to me. Use the "contact" icon at the top of this page.