A 27 year old big pharma sales representative committed suicide by jumping in front of an oncoming train. While that story alone is tragic, the reasons for his suicide deserve discussion. According to a headline story in the New York Times (“Driven to Suicide by Pressure to Sell Medicine”), Ashish Awasthi took his own life because he couldn’t meet Abbott Laboratories’ sales quota.
The married father of two young children left behind a handwritten suicide note. In it he detailed how despite his best efforts, he couldn’t sell enough drugs. Apparently in big pharma, you lose your job if you don’t meet your sales target.
Is this an isolated incident? Awasthi’s suicide certainly appears to be isolated but things are so bad at Abbott that 250 sales reps walked off the job to protest the company’s “overly aggressive sales policies.”
If you work in sales, you know that selling more is usually key to making high commissions. Management always pushes the sales staff to bring in more revenue. In most industries, there is nothing wrong with that. Pharmaceuticals are a different story, however.
Big pharma has been wracked with legal problems caused by overly aggressive marketing tactics. As a False Claims Act (whistleblower) attorney, I often speak with drug company workers who come to us because they believe their employer is breaking the law. Their stories allow us to have a front row seat on the sales practices of big pharma.
What we see is scary.
Drug companies paying doctors to dispense their higher priced products over comparable generics or lower cost alternatives? It happens all the time.
Pushing doctors to prescribe medications for uses not approved by the FDA? Big pharma has paid billions to settle these so called “off label” use cases.
Not charging the government the right price for drugs? That happens all the time too.
Even though these practices are illegal, some companies keep right on offending. For some companies, high fines are simply considered a cost of doing business.
Are the sales reps guilty? Technically they are often guilty but in almost every case prosecutors are looking for the people who gave the orders, not the foot soldiers (sales reps) who carried out those orders. Unfortunately, we see some drug companies put their sales team in an impossible position and then close their eyes to what is going on. This feigned ignorance is easy to debunk, however.
Ashish Awasthi was a sales rep for Abbott in India. The pressures leading up to his tragic death are just as true in the United States, however.
Pharmaceutical companies have developed some pretty sophisticated methods to hide their criminal conduct. You won’t see Awasthi’s U.S. counterparts walk into a doctor’s office with a bag full of cash. But football tickets? gift cards? Meals for staff? It happens all the time.
Even more sophisticated schemes include payments thinly disguised as research grants or honoraria for participating on a speaker panel.
When drug companies push their sales reps too hard, sooner or later some will succumb to the pressure and break the law. Workers under intense pressure and those needing to feed their families will often cross the line. The companies’ depend on them doing so although publicly they will deny all involvement and feign shock when the violations are later discovered.
Much of the pharmaceutical sales in the U.S. are paid with Medicare, Medicaid or Tricare dollars. If a company receives tax dollars and is also paying kickbacks, pushing off label use or overcharging the government, it is breaking the law.
Big Pharma, False Claims Act and Whistleblower Awards
The U.S. False Claims Act allows insiders with information about Medicare fraud, kickbacks and Medicaid fraud to receive an award for their information. Those awards can be as high as 30% of whatever the government collects from the wrongdoer. (One of our whistleblower clients was paid over $50 million for his information.)
If the violation occurs overseas, big pharma whistleblowers may also claim an award, although those awards are generally not available for foreign sales practices unless bribes are being paid. (That is fairly common depending on the country.) Awards are also available for information about cGMP violations if unsafe or under potent drugs are coming into the U.S.
Worried about blowing the whistle? No one can prevent retaliation but it is highly illegal in the United States. Big pharma can actually find itself in even more hot water if they retaliate.
Reporting illegal activity and becoming a whistleblower isn’t easy. Fortunately there is safety in numbers and more and more people are coming forward. It isn’t just about getting an award either. Most whistleblowers first try to fix problems internally before seeking outside help. Only when they are ignored do they become a whistleblower.
In our humble opinion, whistleblowers are the new American heroes (international heroes too)! They save taxpayers billions of dollars annually and insure that vital healthcare dollars go to the needy instead of the greedy.
Interested in becoming a whistleblower? Give us a call. All inquiries are protected by the attorney – client privilege and kept confidential. Worried about paying for legal services? You only pay if we get you an award.
For more information, contact attorney Brian Mahany at or by telephone at (414) 704-6731 (direct). Not ready to call? Download our 11 step guide to blowing the whistle. No email address or phone number needed. You can also visit our pharmaceutical fraud whistleblower page.
MahanyLaw – America’s Big Pharma Whistleblower Lawyers
UPDATE: Abbott Labs has laid off many workers in 2016 and reportedly offshored those jobs to India and Mexico. The stories of some of these workers can be found here.
In our experience, regulatory compliance is much worse in those countries. We welcome the opportunity to speak with present or former Abbott Lab workers here or overseas. Generally we can bring a pharmaceutical whistleblower case within 6 years of any wrongdoing.