ISTA Pharmaceuticals pays $33.5 million, pleads to felony in off-label settlement

by Ben Vernia | May 28th, 2013

On May 24, the Department of Justice announced that ISTA Pharmaceuticals, Inc. had entered a guilty plea and agreed to pay a combined civil and criminal settlement of $33.5 million to resolve claims brought in two qui tam suits that the company promoted one of its opthalmological drugs off-label. According to DOJ’s press release:

Pharmaceutical company ISTA Pharmaceuticals, Inc. pled guilty earlier today to conspiracy to introduce a misbranded drug into interstate commerce and conspiracy to pay illegal remuneration in violation of the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute, the Justice Department announced today. U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Arcara accepted ISTA’s guilty pleas. The guilty pleas are part of a global settlement with the United States in which ISTA agreed to pay $33.5 million to resolve criminal and civil liability arising from its marketing, distribution and sale of its drug Xibrom.

ISTA pled guilty in the Western District of New York to criminal charges that the company conspired to illegally introduce a misbranded drug, Xibrom, into interstate commerce. Under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), it is illegal for a drug company to introduce into interstate commerce any drug that the company intends will be used for uses not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Xibrom is an ophthalmic, nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drug that was approved by FDA to treat pain and inflammation following cataract surgery. In order to expand sales of Xibrom outside of its approved use, ISTA conspired to introduce misbranded Xibrom into interstate commerce.

Between 2005 and 2010, some ISTA employees promoted Xibrom for unapproved new uses, including the use of Xibrom following Lasik and glaucoma surgeries, and for the treatment and prevention of cystoid macular edema. The evidence showed that continuing medical education programs were used to promote Xibrom for uses that were not approved by the FDA as safe and effective, and that post-operative instruction sheets for unapproved uses were paid for by some company employees and provided to physicians. These activities are evidence of intended uses unapproved by FDA, which rendered the drug misbranded under the FDCA.

ISTA pled guilty to a felony based on evidence that some ISTA employees were told by management not to memorialize in writing certain interactions with physicians regarding unapproved new uses, and not to leave certain printed materials in physicians’ offices relating to unapproved new uses. These instructions were given in order to avoid having their conduct relating to unapproved new uses being detected by others. ISTA agreed that this conduct represented an intent to defraud under the law.

In addition, ISTA pled guilty to a conspiracy to knowingly and willfully offering or paying remuneration to physicians in order to induce those physicians to prescribe Xibrom, in violation of the federal Anti-Kickback Statute. Under the law, it is illegal to offer or pay remuneration, directly or indirectly, overtly or covertly, in cash or in kind, to physicians to induce them to refer individuals to pharmacies for the dispensing of drugs, for which payments are made in whole or in part under a Federal health care program. In this matter, certain ISTA employees, with the knowledge and at the direction of ISTA, offered and provided physicians with free Vitrase, another ISTA product, with the intent to induce such physicians to refer individuals to pharmacies for the dispensing of the drug Xibrom. In addition, ISTA provided other illegal remuneration, including a monetary payment to sponsor an event of a non-profit group associated with a particular physician, a golf outing, a wine-tasting event, paid consulting or speaker arrangements, and honoraria for participation in advisory meetings which were intended to be marketing opportunities, with the intent to induce physicians to refer individuals to pharmacies for the dispensing of the drug Xibrom.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, ISTA will pay a total of $18.5 million, including a criminal fine of $16,125,000 for the conspiracy to introduce misbranded Xibrom into interstate commerce, $500,000 for the conspiracy to violate the Anti-Kickback Statute, and $1,850,000 in asset forfeiture associated with the misbranding charge.

ISTA also entered into a civil settlement agreement under which it agreed to pay $15 million to the federal government and states to resolve claims arising from its marketing of Xibrom, which caused false claims to be submitted to government health care programs. The civil settlement resolved allegations that ISTA promoted the sale and use of Xibrom for certain uses that were not FDA-approved and not covered by the Federal health care programs, including prevention and treatment of cystoid macular edema, treatment of pain and inflammation associated with non-cataract eye surgery, and treatment of glaucoma. The United States further alleged that ISTA’s violations of the Anti-Kickback Statute resulted in false claims being submitted to federal health care programs. The federal share of the civil settlement is $14,609,746.16, and the state Medicaid share of the civil settlement is $390,253.84. Except as admitted in the plea agreement, the claims settled by the civil settlement agreement are allegations only, and there has been no determination of liability as to those claims.

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In addition to the criminal fines and asset forfeiture, ISTA’s parent company, Bausch+Lomb, Incorporated (B+L), has agreed to maintain a Compliance and Ethics Program. B+L has agreed that it will maintain policies and procedures that: (1) prohibit the involvement of sales and marketing personnel and others on the businesses’ commercial team in the final decision-making process with respect to educational grants in the United States, while also ensuring that the educational programming is focused on objective scientific and educational activities and discourse; (2) require sales agents to discuss only those product uses that are consistent with what is indicated on the product’s approved package labeling and to forward requests for information regarding uses of B+L’s products not approved by FDA to a Medical Affairs Professional; and (3) prohibit the company from engaging in any conduct that violates the Anti-Kickback Statute, including the offering or paying of any remuneration to any person to induce such person to prescribe any drug for which payment may be made in whole or in part under a Federal health care program. The Program also requires that B+L’s President of Global Pharmaceuticals conduct an annual review of the effectiveness of B+L’s Program as it relates to the marketing, promotion, and sale of prescription pharmaceutical products, and certify that to the best of his or her knowledge, the Program was effective in preventing violations of Federal health care program requirements and the FDCA regarding sales, marketing, and promotion of B+L’s prescription pharmaceutical products.

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Upon conviction for the criminal charges described above, ISTA will face mandatory exclusion from Federal healthcare programs. Exclusion will mean that on the effective date of the exclusion, any ISTA labeled drugs in ISTA’s possession would no longer be reimbursable by Medicare, Medicaid, or other Federal healthcare programs. In June 2012, B+L acquired ISTA. Simultaneous with the False Claims Act settlement and the entry of the plea, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, ISTA, and B+L will enter into a Divestiture Agreement under which ISTA agrees to be excluded for 15 years, effective six months after the date of the settlement. Under the terms of the Divestiture Agreement, ISTA will transfer all assets to B+L or a B+L subsidiary and will stop shipping ISTA labeled drugs within six months of the Divestiture Agreement. Six months after the effective date of the Divestiture Agreement, all ISTA labeled drugs in the possession of ISTA or B+L will no longer be reimbursable by Medicare, Medicaid, and other Federal healthcare programs. Those ISTA labeled drugs in the stream of commerce at that time will continue to be reimbursable.

The government also announced that one of the qui tam relators, a former ISTA sales representative, will receive $2.5 million of the federal share of the civil settlement (a relator’s share of approximately 17%). The government did not announce what, if any, share the other relator will receive.

Disclosure: The Vernia Law Firm represented ISTA in this matter.

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