The health insurer Cigna announced that effective January 1, 2018, it will no longer cover OxyContin as a preferred medication. The company is in the process of notifying customers with current OxyContin prescriptions and their doctors of the upcoming change. Individuals who have begun using OxyContin for hospice care or cancer treatments will continue to be covered through 2018. If a doctor believes the use of OxyContin is medically necessary, Cigna will consider approving coverage. Needless to say, Purdue Pharmacy, the manufacturer of OxyContin, disagrees with the Cigna decision.
Cigna will offer an oxycodone equivalent medication with abuse deterrent properties, Xtampza ER with Collegium Pharmaceuticals. Collegium signed a “value-based contract” with Cigna, which will hold the company financially accountable if average daily dosage strengths of Xtampza ER prescribed for Cigna customers exceed a specific threshold. If the threshold is exceeded, Collegium will reduce the cost of the medication. “Linking financial terms to dosage metrics may encourage more education to prevent overprescribing.”
The Fix reported a Purdue spokesperson said there were few differences between OxyContin and Xtampza ER. “Unfortunately, Cigna’s decision limits the tools prescribers can use to help address the opioid crisis as both products are formulated with properties designed to deter abuse.” Cigna responded by saying the point is to change prescription practices. “The insurer hopes that doctors will begin to prescribe drugs like Xtampza ER ‘in lesser quantities and for lesser amounts of time.’”
Cigna’s decision comes in the midst of increasing pressure on Purdue Pharmacy for their aggressive, and at times illegal marketing practices of OxyContin. The pharmaceutical company came under scrutiny partly because of a series of investigative reports by the LA Times that noted a series of issues. The issues including how Purdue Pharma knew pain relief with OxyContin did not last the 12 hours as it claimed; but the company continued to insist the drug did last, in part, to protect its revenue. When doctors complained about the duration, Purdue instructed them to prescribe stronger, not more frequent doses. “OxyContin’s market dominance and premium price hinge on its 12-hour duration.” Purdue allegedly knew of this issue for more than twenty years.
For years, Purdue Pharma lied to federal regulators and the public about the addictiveness of OxyContin and countless patients got hooked on this deadly painkiller. We need to know if Purdue once again lied about the longevity of OxyContin’s pain-relieving properties and hold Purdue accountable.
Additionally, Purdue knew OxyContin was being overprescribed and illegally trafficked, but in many cases, did nothing about it. With one such operation, Lake Medical, Purdue did not stop supplying OxyContin and did not tell authorities what it knew for several years until the clinic was out of business and its leader indicted. By that time, 1.1 million pills has been put on the street.
A Los Angeles Times investigation found that, for more than a decade, Purdue collected extensive evidence suggesting illegal trafficking of OxyContin and, in many cases, did not share it with law enforcement or cut off the flow of pills. A former Purdue executive, who monitored pharmacies for criminal activity, acknowledged that even when the company had evidence pharmacies were colluding with drug dealers, it did not stop supplying distributors selling to those stores.
In 2015 Kentucky received $24 million from Purdue to settle the state’s 2007 against the company over their allegedly illegal promotion of OxyContin. As is usual in cases where pharmaceutical companies settle outside of court, they requested the records gathered in the court case be sealed and destroyed. In this case, there were 17 million pages of documents, including a deposition of Dr. Richard Sackler, the former president of Purdue Pharma and a member of the family who owns the privately held company. As part of the agreement, the Kentucky attorney general destroyed its copies of the documents provided by Purdue. However, copies of several key documents, including the Sackett deposition, filed under seal at the Pike County court, were not destroyed.
STAT News learned of the existence of these documents and filed a motion in March of 2016 to unseal the documents. In May of 2016 a Kentucky judge ordered that the documents be unsealed by June 12th. The judge said he would stay the release of the records if there was an appeal filed before then. As of June of 2017, the documents were still not released. Purdue appealed the ruling to the Kentucky Court of appeals and although the appeals court said it expected to rule on the matter by the end of August, there was still no announcement by the middle of October.
The President of the Kentucky state Senate planned to file a motion to support the efforts by STAT to unseal the documents, saying that shielding the records from public view was “inappropriate.” He acknowledged his request to intervene could be unsuccessful, and it seems that it was. He thought the documents could help evaluate whether the $24 million payment from Purdue was a good settlement for Kentucky. “Two prior attorneys general valued the case at between $100 million and $1 billion.” Senate President Robert Stivers was concerned the state settled for “pennies on the dollar.”
Purdue was already pivoting to go overseas with its marketing strategy by 2011. With the growing concern over the opioid crisis in the U.S. and the awareness of the role OxyContin played in it, prescriptions fell by almost 40% since 2010, meaning billions in lost revenue for Purdue. Again, the LA Times documented this market expansion by Purdue in a December 2016 article, “OxyContin Goes Global.” Using a network of international companies owned by the Sackler family, Purdue Pharma is moving rapidly into Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and other regions. “In this global drive, the companies known as Mundipharma, are using some of the same controversial marketing practices that made OxyContin a pharmaceutical blockbuster in the U.S.”
In 2011, operations were started in China, Russia, Turkey, Hong Kong and South Africa. 2013 saw activity in Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan. Dubai, Brazil, Columbia and Spain came on board in 2014. Lebanon and Portugal opened operations in 2015; Argentina in 2016. Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela plan to launch operations in the near future. There is an interactive map on “OxyContin Goes Global” that graphically illustrates this expansion.
In Brazil, China and elsewhere, the companies are running training seminars where doctors are urged to overcome “opiophobia” and prescribe painkillers. They are sponsoring public awareness campaigns that encourage people to seek medical treatment for chronic pain. They are even offering patient discounts to make prescription opioids more affordable.
Like the initial marketing of OxyContin in the U. S., some Mundipharma representatives and promotional material minimize the risks that patients will become addicted to opioid medications. While U.S. public health officials were warning of the growing pain killer threat in 2015, a Mundipharma executive in Seoul South Korea was saying doctors there worry too much about addiction: “Many studies have shown that it’s almost impossible for those with chronic or severe pain to become addicted to narcotics, as long as the drug is used for pain relief.” The opioid problem in the U.S. is said to be largely due to recreational abuse of the drugs.
“That is exactly the same thing they were teaching U.S. physicians when they launched OxyContin in this country,” said Sharon Walsh, an addiction expert who advises the FDA on risks from pain medications.
Mundipharma uses consultants (referred to as thought leaders in the U.S.), as did Purdue and other pharma companies, to overcome this opiophobia among doctors reluctant to prescribe narcotics. Top company officials have said their success in new markets depends on defeating this mind-set.
In Spain, Mundipharma used a series of actors, musicians and models in a campaign against chronic pain. “Ebélate contra el dolor (Rebel against the pain).” The ads did not recommend a specific medication, but urged viewers to seek out a healthcare professional (call your doctor?). “The campaign is part of a strategy to redefine back pain, joint aches and other common conditions as a distinct malady — chronic pain — that doctors and patients should take seriously.” Mundipharma sales were up seven-fold since 2007.
Around the world, Mundipharma companies cite statistics suggesting there is a great unmet need for their products. Opening an office in Mexico in 2014, Mundipharma officials declared that 28 million citizens were suffering from chronic pain. In Brazil, the company cited a figure of 80 million. In Colombia last year, a company news release said 47% of the population — about 22 million people — were afflicted by ‘this silent epidemic.’”
Meanwhile, back in the US, the lawsuits against Purdue Pharma just keep on coming. In May of 2017 the NYT reported Purdue and three current and former executives pleaded guilty in federal court to criminal charges “that they misled regulators, doctors and patients” about the drug’s addiction risk and potential for abuse. In order to resolve criminal and civil charges stemming from the drug’s “misbranding,” Purdue agreed to pay $600 million, one of the largest amount ever paid by a drug company in such cases. Three executives, including its president and its top lawyer pleaded guilty as individuals to misbranding, which is a criminal violation. “They agreed to pay a total of $34.5 million in fines.”
Purdue Pharma acknowledged in the court proceeding today that “with the intent to defraud or mislead,” it marketed and promoted OxyContin as a drug that was less addictive, less subject to abuse and less likely to cause other narcotic side effects than other pain medications.
Reuters reported that New Hampshire announced in the beginning of August of 2017 that it was suing Purdue for engaging in deceptive marketing practices. The lawsuit followed similar cases against Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies by Oklahoma, Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri and several cities and counties in California, Illinois, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee and New York.
A week later, South Carolina filed suit against Purdue Pharma, according to Reuters. Again the company is accused of unfair and deceptive marketing of opioid painkillers. South Carolina had been part of a 2007 settlement when Purdue and three executives pleaded guilty to federal charges of misbranding OxyContin. In the August 2017 lawsuit, “South Carolina claimed that since the 2007 settlement, Purdue has continued to engage in misleading opioid marketing practices rather than reforming them to conform with the law.”
In the 1987 movie Wall Street, Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko famously said, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” He went on to claim that greed captured the essence of the evolutionary spirit. “In all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.” At the end of his speech, he was applauded. The greed of Purdue Pharma and the Sackett family, which privately owns Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, is not good. Their unrestrained greed has contributed to the current opioid epidemic in the U.S., despite the denials of the company. And now they want to export the same drug and marketing strategy to the world.