Insys Therapeutics’ Executives Held On Trial

Fentanyl overdoses caused the deaths of over 29,000 people in the United States in 2017.

Fentanyl overdoses caused the deaths of over 29,000 people in the United States in 2017.

Federal prosecutors are holding executives from the pharmaceutical corporation Insys Therapeutics in a criminal trial beginning on January 30. This is the first time the federal government is prosecuting a pharmaceutical company for the opioid crisis, using the Racketeer Influenced and Corruption (RICO) Act to accuse the company of manipulating doctors into prescribing their opioid products to patients who did not need them. Throughout the trial, multiple revelations about the incentives to cooperation, such as paid speaking events and lap dances, have emerged.

Federal prosecutors are cracking down on pharmaceutical companies since the opioid epidemic came into the spotlight due to its acceleration from 2016-2017. According to the CDC, over “130 people die every day from an opioid overdose.” Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are the leading cause of overdose.

The epidemic grew due to doctors' overprescription of synthetic opioids in exchange for compensation from pharmaceutical corporations. The prescription of opioids in non-medically necessary circumstances can often lead to addiction.

Insys Therapeutics is a pharmaceutical corporation located in Phoenix, Arizona that became prominent when it released Subsys, a highly addictive sublingual opioid spray, in early 2018. The drug is a strong painkiller marketed toward patients with terminal cancer.

Insys Therapeutics bribed doctors to prescribe Subsys to any patient that was experiencing pain. Insys funnelled over $2 million in payments to doctors in 2016 for overprescribing the drug.

One such doctor is neurologist Gavin Awerbuch. Awerbuch claimed in testimony that he did not treat cancer patients, that he knew the risks, and that he “prescribed it to patients who really didn’t need it  just to increase [his] number of prescriptions.” At one point, Awerbuch says he wrote 26 prescriptions in one week. Awerbuch received a sentence of 36 months in prison.

While Insys could not directly give doctors money to overprescribe their drug, it did funnel the money through other means. Its most popular method entailed setting up fake events at which doctors like Awerbuch were paid to speak. However, no doctors showed up to these dinner events, so Awerbuch was paid $1,600 to have a meal with an Insys sales representative.

Insys also used lap dances to incentivize doctors. Paul Madison, a pain-management specialist on Insys’ payroll, received over $70,000 in bribes to overprescribe Subsys. According to Insys sales representative Holly Brown, Madison received a lap dance from sales executive Sunrise Lee. Lee worked as a dancer at a strip club and ran an escort service before being hired as a sales executive without any academic degree.

Defense lawyers for Insys claim that the use of RICO and the prosecution of the executives is government overreach. They argue that the government hopes to publicly show resistance to the opioid crisis. Regardless of the outcome, one thing is certain: practices by pharmaceutical companies like Insys are being exposed and may soon be prosecuted.