Investigations of Anemia Drug Profiteering Far from Over – Part I

Evelyn Pringle August 5, 2007

On July 20, 2007, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services issued new reimbursement rules that limit the use and dosage for a class of anemia drugs known as erythropoiesis stimulating agents (ESA’s), in large part prompted by findings that the medications were being over-prescribed for profit under the current billing rules.

However, right about now, reimbursement rates are probably the least of the worries for the companies that market the drugs, Johnson & Johnson and Amgen. On May 10, 2007, Amgen received a subpoena from the New York attorney general seeking documents related to “promotional activities, sales and marketing activities, medical education, clinical studies, pricing and contracting, license and distribution agreements and corporate communications,” according to the firm’s May 22, 2007, SEC filing.

Also, a J&J spokeswomen said her company has also received a subpoena that covers the sales, marketing, medical education, and clinical trials of the ESA’s, according to the May 25, 2007, Cancer Letter.

The drugs are sold under the brand names Procrit, Epogen, and Aranesp, and Amgen manufactures all three, but Procrit is marketed by J&J.

On April 17, 2007, Newsday reported that the large for-profit dialysis chains like DaVita and Fresenius are negotiating volume discounts that allow them to buy ESA’s at a lower price than the reimbursement rate from Medicare, “making the drug a profit center.”

A June 2007 report on an investigation by the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General found dialysis facilities could acquire the anemia drugs for as much as 10% below Medicare reimbursement levels. Acquisition costs varied substantially, the report notes, with chain-owned freestanding clinics often paying less than non-chain freestanding and hospital-based facilities, but all totaled, 99% of freestanding dialysis facilities could purchase ESA’s for less than the Medicare reimbursement rate.

On May 9, 2007, the New York Times reported that J&J and Amgen were paying “hundreds of millions of dollars to doctors every year in return for giving their patients anemia medicines.”

Federal law bars drug makers from paying doctors who prescribe drugs in pill form to be purchased at a pharmacy, but companies are allowed to offer rebates to doctors who buy drugs that are administered in their office.

Documents obtained by the Times show that, at just one practice in the Pacific Northwest, six cancer doctors received $2.7 million from Amgen for prescribing $9 million worth of its drugs last year.

Michael Sullivan, who worked as a business manager for the six doctors in the Pacific Northwest for 9 years, told the Times that the rebates inevitably encourage use of the drugs and that as result of the rebates from Amgen, the six doctors made about $1.8 million in net profit on the drugs they prescribed.

On May 10, 2007, the Wall Street Journal reported a review of documents provided by Dean McClellan, a former sales representative who filed a whistleblower lawsuit against J&J alleging that the company “offered excessive financial incentives for doctors” to prescribe Procrit and encouraged doctors to prescribe the drug at higher doses than were approved.

One document, cited by Journal, estimated that a doctor who purchased nearly $1 million worth of Procrit over 15 months would receive $237,885. Another program offered a discount for J&J’s product line for hospitals that used Procrit at least 75% of the time. J&J also developed a “Right of First Refusal” contract that required doctors to allow J&J to make a better offer if Amgen lowered the price of Aranesp, making it cheaper than Procrit.

Half of Amgen’s total revenue for 2006 was earned by Epogen and Aranesp, bringing in combined sales of $6.6 billion. Procrit was J&J’s second best selling drug last year at $3.2 billion, according to Forbes on March 21, 2007.

In the US, the majority of the profits are tax dollars, because Medicare pays for over 90% of services provided to patients with end stage renal disease (ESRD), and the anemia drugs cost approximately $2 billion a year, according to a report by the US House Ways and Means Committee which oversees spending by the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

The drugs are approved only for the limited use with patients who are anemic and undergoing dialysis due to chronic kidney disease, cancer patients who are receiving chemotherapy and patients who are scheduled to have major surgery to reduce the need for blood transfusions.

According to the FDA-approved labeling, before receiving ESA’s, patients should have a hemoglobin (red blood cell count) level of 10-12 grams per deciliter of blood, and the drugs are to be used only if the level drops below 10 grams.

Despite the FDA label, a 2006 report by the US Renal Data System, a large federally-funded registry of patients on dialysis, found that more than 40% of dialysis patients have a hemoglobin level greater than 12, and over 20% have hemoglobin levels above 13.

In the past year, investigations have shown that the drugs are being administered to patients who are not receiving dialysis or chemotherapy and in higher doses than approved. In fact, one study found that about 50% of dialysis patients had hemoglobin levels above what the FDA considers safe, and about 20% develop dangerously high levels that can lead to heart attacks and strokes, according to the November 17, 2006, medical journal Lancet.

A November 2006 Dialysis and Transplantation study found that the population with a red blood cell count above the guidelines also had higher costs of $3,100 per patient per year more for just the anemia drug.

Dr Laura Pizzi, a Research Associate Professor of Health Policy at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia who led the study, testified at a December 2, 2006 hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee and discussed how the study converted the difference in utilization to dollars amounts between actual usage versus recommended practice based on 2005 Medicare reimbursement rates and estimated that Medicare could have reduced the cost for the drugs by 36% if dialysis facilities adhered to the guidelines.

“If CMS spends $2 billion per year,” she said, “it is reasonable to say that several hundred million dollars could have been saved on the drug if providers followed the guidelines.”

On December 6, 2006, Dr Ajay Singh, clinical chief of the Renal Division and director of dialysis services at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, testified at a hearing before the US House Ways and Means Committee and told lawmakers that patients in the higher hemoglobin group had a 34% higher risk of death and cardiovascular complications compared to patients in the lower level group.

He testified to a study that found there were 52 deaths in the higher group versus 36 in the lower hemoglobin group, or a 48% higher risk and a 41% higher risk of hospitalizations for heart failure and more cardiovascular adverse events.

Dr Singh also said the study found no benefits for patients who received the drugs and, therefore, “the conclusion was there was both increased risk and no substantive incremental quality of life benefit in raising the hemoglobin among patients with chronic kidney disease not on dialysis.”

An editorial in the April 18, 2007, Journal of the American Medical Association, by Dr Daniel Coyne, a professor at Washington University School of Medicine, estimated that it costs the Medicare program $1,700 more for each patients on the higher dose. “Physicians need to challenge industries,” he wrote, “that appear to be using patients as profit centers based on bad science.”

In February 2007, the FDA notified health care professionals of the results from a large clinical trial evaluating the use of Aranesp to treat cancer patients not receiving chemotherapy in which patients received either Aranesp according to the approved dosing regimen or a placebo.

Patients treated with Aranesp, the FDA reported, had a higher death rate and no reduction in the need for transfusions compared to those treated with placebo. The FDA warned that the finding showed that treating anemic cancer patients not on chemotherapy with an ESA may offer no benefit and may cause serious harm.

In a March 9, 2007, safety alert, the FDA reported that an analyses of four new studies in patients with cancer found a higher rate of serious and life-threatening side effects and/or death with the use of ESA’s. The studies were evaluating an unapproved dosing regimen, a patient population for which ESA’s are not approved, or a new unapproved ESA.

According to the FDA, as of March 2007, there were five clinical trials that demonstrated decreased survival time in cancer patients receiving ESA’s compared with those receiving blood transfusions.

In addition, the agency reported a higher rate of blood clots, strokes, heart failure, heart attacks and death in patients with chronic kidney failure when ESA’s were given to raise hemoglobin levels higher than 12.

The FDA advisory also noted that a higher risk of blood clots was reported in patients who were scheduled for major surgery and received ESA’s.

The FDA also warned of an increased rate of tumor growth in patients with advanced head and neck cancer receiving radiation therapy and metastatic breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, when ESA’s were given to maintain levels of more than 12.

There was also a higher rate of death reported, the agency said, but no fewer blood transfusions when ESA’s were given to patients who were not receiving chemotherapy.

In March 2007, the FDA revised the product labeling for the drugs to include updated warnings, a new boxed warning and modifications to the dosing instructions. The boxed warning advises doctors to use the lowest ESA dose to gradually increase the hemoglobin level to a concentration sufficient to avoid the need for blood transfusions.

The label revisions, the FDA said, were based on recently completed trials that described an increased risk of death, blood clots, strokes and heart attacks in patients with chronic kidney failure when ESA’s were given at doses that resulted in higher than recommended hemoglobin levels.

The revisions also addressed the trial findings for cancer patients, both when ESA’s were given at doses intended to result in higher than recommended hemoglobin levels, and when ESA’s were given to cancer patients whose anemia was not chemotherapy-related.

The revised label also summarizes the information from the trial that showed an increased risk for deep venous thrombosis in patients following orthopedic surgery when ESA’s were administered without the blood clot prevention measures listed on the product label.

On May 8, 2007, the FDA released a report by agency scientists that said there was no evidence to support that ESA’s improved the quality of life in patients or extended their survival, while several studies show the drugs can shorten lives when used at high doses.

On June 26, 2007, Robert Vito, Regional Inspector General for Evaluation and Inspections in Philadelphia at the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, testified at a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee and described cases where dialysis centers have been found to be submitting false claims for payment to Medicare involving the anemia drugs.

This year, he said, Dialysis Clinic, Inc., which provides services to Medicare beneficiaries with ESRD with clinics located in more than 30 States, agreed to pay $1.8 million to resolve liability under the False Claim Act, with the majority of the settlement associated with the administration and billing of ESA’s when it was medically unnecessary.

Investigations of Anemia Drug Profiteering Far from Over – Part II

Evelyn Pringle August 7, 2007

According to US Renal Data System and the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, Medicare spends about $64,000 annually for each person on hemodialysis for all medical services, and the anemia drugs Procrit, Epogen and Aranesp are the single largest drug expense for Medicare.

In 2005, Medicare spent $2 billion on the drugs, and from 1991 to 2004, the cost of the medications to Medicare increased 716% from $245 million to $2 billion, according to a report by the US House Ways and Means Committee.

Amgen produced the synthetic epoetin in 1989 and sold it under the brand name Epogen as a treatment for anemic kidney patients and HIV related anemia. Shortly after Epogen came on the market, Amgen entered into an agreement to allow J&J to sell the same drug under the brand name Procrit, as long as it stayed out of the dialysis market, which basically helped the young company raise capital.

In 1993, J&J received approval to sell Procrit as a treatment for cancer patients with chemotherapy-related anemia, and a few years later, Amgen gained FDA approval for the long-lasting version of the drug, Aranesp, to treat both renal and chemotherapy related anemia.

Recent investigations have shown the drug makers are providing incentives to encourage the over-prescribing of ESA’s to Medicare patients by charging less for the drugs than the Medicare reimbursement rates.

A March 2006 government report entitled “Medicare Reimbursement for New End Stage Renal Disease Drugs,” found freestanding dialysis facilities on average were able to acquire Aranesp for between 14 and 27% below the Medicare reimbursement amounts in 2005.

On May 10, 2007, due to reports of rampant over-prescribing of the drugs for uses and doses not approved by the FDA and the deaths and injuries to patients as a result, the Oncology Drug Advisory Panel (ODAC) voted 15-2 in favor of adding new restrictions on the use of the drugs and voted 17-0 in favor of requiring the drug makers to conduct new clinical trials.

However, experts say the recommendations come about ten years and probably tens of thousands of deaths and injuries too late, because the FDA was made aware of the serious health risks associated with ESA’s in a report on the Amgen sponsored Normal Hematocrit Study back in 1996, and the FDA did little more than revise the product labeling a wee bit.

The 1996 study was designed to evaluate whether patients with chronic renal failure undergoing dialysis had fewer cardiovascular complications if the ESA was administered to attain a higher hematocrit level as compared to a lower level. The trial was terminated early because of a finding of more deaths and non-fatal myocardial infarctions in the patients randomized to the higher hematocrit target level.

The labeling revision recommended that the ESA’s not be used to achieve hematocrit in excess of 36%, or a hemoglobin level of 12 g/dL and was accompanied by the sponsor’s agreement to conduct a study to further examine the risk for blood clots among patients receiving ESA’s because an increased thrombotic risk was suspected to be one of the causes for the risks detected in the study, according to the FDA.

So ten years later, two clinical trials and an editorial finally appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine in November 2006, to report the risks associated with the use of ESA’s in the treatment of anemia from chronic renal failure.

The Correction of Hemoglobin and Outcomes in Renal Insufficiency (CHOIR) study showed increases in serious and potentially life-threatening cardiovascular events when Procrit was administered to reach higher hemoglobin levels, and the Cardiovascular Risk Reduction by Early Treatment with Epoetin Beta (CREATE) study trended toward more cardiovascular events in a pattern similar to the CHOIR study, thus strengthening the findings of the CHOIR study, the FDA said.

On June 26, 2007, Dr John Jenkins, Director of the FDA’s Office of New Drugs Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, testified at a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee and said the study findings “underscore the importance of the warnings previously described in the labeling for Procrit, Epogen, and Aranesp regarding cardiovascular risks that include thrombotic events and increased mortality in hemodialysis patients who participated in the Normal Hematocrit Study.”

He told the Committee that the new studies, combined with the findings from the Normal Hematocrit Study, showed that patients with anemia due to chronic renal failure, whether or not receiving dialysis, “were at increased risk for serious cardiovascular complications when ESA’s were administered to attain hemoglobin levels in excess of the 12 g/dL level recommended in the ESA product labels.”

Dr Jenkins also said the FDA became aware of safety concerns about the use of ESA’s in cancer patients receiving chemotherapy between 2001 and 2003, when the agency received reports from two trials (BEST and ENHANCE) that demonstrated higher mortality and more rapid tumor growth when the ESA’s were given to maintain hemoglobin levels of greater than 12 g/dL and the findings were discussed at a May 2004 meeting of the ODAC.

He said the new safety data was added to the labeling for ESA products shortly after that meeting and that the advisory panel recommended additional data be gathered to further evaluate the new safety concerns about patients with cancer.

However, according to Dr Jenkins, it was not until late 2006 and early 2007 that the FDA was informed of several new trials in cancer patients that raised additional safety concerns.

In December 2006, the ESA makers informed the FDA of the interim results of the Danish Head and Neck Cancer Study Group trial (DAHANCA 10), a trial that compared radiation therapy alone to radiation therapy plus Aranesp in the treatment of advanced head and neck cancer.

The trial assessed whether treating anemia to achieve and maintain a hemoglobin concentration of 14.0-15.5 g/dL during radiotherapy would improve local-regional disease control.

The data monitoring committee for this trial found that 3-year local-regional control in patients treated with Aranesp was worse than for those not receiving Aranesp. Overall survival time also favored those not treated with Aranesp, he said, and the monitoring committee recommended the ESA treatment be stopped in the experimental arm on December 1, 2006.

Dr Jenkins said the FDA was notified in January 2007 of the results of a 989 patient trial of Aranesp in cancer patients with anemia who were not receiving chemotherapy when the target hemoglobin in the Aranesp treatment group was 12 g/dL.

The FDA’s analysis of the study data, he told the Committee, demonstrated that Aranesp did not significantly reduce the need for red blood cell transfusions and showed an increase in mortality in patients receiving Aranesp compared to those receiving placebo.

He said the FDA was also notified in February 2007 of the final results of a double-blind, placebo-controlled study that was designed to evaluate whether Epoetin alpha improved the quality of life for patients with non-small cell lung cancer who were not receiving chemotherapy with the dose titrated to maintain a hemoglobin level of 12 to 14 g/dL.

However, according to Dr Jenkins, this study was closed down in December 2003 after enrolling only 70 patients because its data monitoring committee found higher mortality rates in patients treated with Epoetin alfa.

Dr Jenkins informed the panel that the median time to death in patients treated with Epoetin alfa was 68 days and significantly shorter than the median time of 131 days in those treated with placebo. Also, he noted, treatment with Epoetin alfa did not significantly reduce the need for red blood cell transfusion or improve quality of life.

Dr Jenkins also explained that in 1996, the FDA approved the indication for use of ESA’s to reduce the need for blood transfusions in patients with hemoglobin values between 10 and 13 g/dL scheduled to undergo non-vascular, non-cardiac surgery.

Here, too, the approval was accompanied by a commitment to complete a post-marketing study to evaluate the risk for thrombotic events among patients who were not receiving preventive therapy with anti-thrombotic drugs.

In this case, according to Dr Jenkins, the FDA only received the results of this post-marketing study in 2007. Specifically, he said, the FDA was notified in February 2007 of the preliminary results of a trial with Procrit compared to the standard of care in patients undergoing spinal surgery.

“In this trial,” he said, “the frequency of deep venous thrombosis in patients treated with Procrit was 4.7 percent (16 patients), a rate more than twice that of patients who received usual blood conservation care (2.1 percent, seven patients).”

On June 26, 2007, Robert Vito, Regional Inspector General in Philadelphia at the US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General, testified at a hearing before the House Ways and Means Committee subcommittee and described cases where dialysis centers have been found to be overbilling Medicare for the anemia drugs.

He discussed a 2004 audit of payments to DaVita for ESA services provided at one Philadelphia dialysis center, which found that 44 of the 143 claims reviewed did not meet Medicare payment requirements.

In some cases, he said, they identified inconsistencies between the number of units prescribed in the physician order and the number billed to Medicare and also identified instances in which the drug was still administered to the patient after the doctor had ordered its discontinuation.

As another example, he told the committee that, in 2005, Gambro Healthcare, owner and operator of over 500 dialysis centers, agreed to pay over $350 million to resolve civil and criminal fraud allegations in the Medicare, Medicaid and TRICARE programs. To resolve its civil liability, he noted, Gambro paid $310.5 million for submitting false claims to Medicare and paying doctors improper remuneration related to their medical director services.

The new CMS reimbursement rules stipulate that cancer patients receiving chemotherapy should only use ESA’s if their hemoglobin levels fall below 10 and also limit the duration of therapy to a maximum of eight weeks after the completion of chemotherapy. They also limit the starting dose to match the FDA recommendations and limit the levels by which doses can be raised and Medicare will not cover treatment for anemic cancer patients who are not receiving chemotherapy or radiation.

The subpoena from New York Attorney General is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Amgen’s legal woes. The company’s failure to disclose the results of a Danish study in head and neck cancer has resulted in an inquiry by the SEC and several shareholder lawsuits.

According to the SEC filing, a class-action lawsuit was filed on May 11, 2007, in California, alleging that Amgen and its executives “made false statements that resulted in a fraudulent scheme and course of business operated as a fraud or deceit on purchasers of Amgen publicly traded securities.”

On May 14, 2007, the company was also served with a shareholder demand on the board of directors to establish a “special litigation committee” to investigate potential breaches of fiduciary duties by current or former officers and directors of the company, according to the filing.

The shareholders allege that these individuals violated core fiduciary duties, causing Amgen to suffer damages, and seek to recover damages resulting from their breach of fiduciary duties, monies and benefits improperly granted to them, insider trading proceeds and all costs associated with the inquiry by the SEC.

Amgen and J&J Funnel Tax Dollars Through Kidney and Cancer Patients

Evelyn Pringle April 17, 2007

Medicare has provided coverage for all patients with End Stage Renal Disease since 1972, and according to the House Ways and Means Committee, the government pays for 93% of services provided to dialysis patients, at a cost of about $2 billion a year.

In 2005, the drugs darbepoetin and epoetin, commonly used by patients who must undergo dialysis, accounted for almost 20% of the $13 billion spent on the Medicare Part B drug plan, and total sales for these drugs worldwide topped $9 billion.

Amgen manufactures and markets darbepoetin as Aranesp, and epoetin is sold under the names Procrit and Epogen. But Procrit is distributed by Ortho Biotech Products, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary. There are no generic versions of these medications.

The drugs are among the top sellers for both companies. Amgen’s Epogen and Aranesp combined sales were $6.6 billion in 2006, nearly half of the company’s total revenues. Johnson and Johnson’s revenues were $3.2 billion in 2006, making it the company’s second-biggest-selling drug, according to on March 21, 2007.

The drugs are man-made versions of erythropoietin, a hormone normally produced in the kidneys, and belong to a class of drugs known as Erythropoiesis Stimulating Agents. ESA’s are used to treat anemia in raising hemoglobin levels by increasing the number of red blood cells in the body. Anemia’s severity is monitored by a patient’s hematocrit, the proportion of red blood cells in whole blood, which should stay between 33% and 36%.

According to the FDA, ESAs are approved to treat anemia in patients with chronic kidney failure, patients with cancer whose anemia is caused by chemotherapy, patients scheduled for major surgery to reduce potential blood transfusions, and for the treatment of anemia due to zidovudine therapy in HIV patients.

But Aranesp, Epogen, and Procrit are being administered “off label” for uses and in doses not approved by the FDA. For instance, an Amgen vice president recently estimated that about 10% to 12% of Aranesp sales are for the unapproved use of treating “anemia of cancer” in patients who are not undergoing chemotherapy.

A recent company study conducted to support FDA approval for using the drug to treat “anemia of cancer” in patients with cancer in remission who were not undergoing chemotherapy, revealed that Aranesp actually increased the risk of death in these patients.

The February 2, 2007, “Cancer Letter ,” a newsletter for cancer professionals, warns, “If the findings of the recently reported study hold up, more than one in 10 Americans getting Aranesp without chemotherapy has no chance of benefiting from the agent and could be harmed or killed by it, experts say.”

The report estimated that up to 12% of the use of ESAs in the US was for this condition.

After reviewing the results of this study and several others, on March 9, 2007, the FDA announced that black box warnings would be added to the labels for all ESAs and recommended using the lowest possible dose to raise the hemoglobin concentration to the lowest level.

The FDA-approved labeling for the drugs says patients should have a hemoglobin level of 10-12 grams per deciliter of blood, and patients are considered to need treatment if their levels fall below 10 grams.

During a press briefing, Dr Richard Pazdur, director of the FDA’s Office of Oncology Drug Products at the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said the black box warning was being added based on the results of several recently reported clinical trials.

Dr Karen Weiss, deputy director of the Office of Oncology Drug Products, said the FDA became concerned after receiving the results from several trials evaluating the aggressive use of ESAs to raise hemoglobin levels higher than listed on their approved labels.

In the March 10, 2007 Wall Street Journal, Dr Weiss was quoted as saying, the “bulk of the data that has raised concerns” came when patients were given higher doses, whether they were experiencing anemia from kidney disease or cancer treatment.

The evidence shows that “this type of strategy is not beneficial and, in fact, has some evidence of harm,” she said.

On March 9, 2007, the FDA also issued a public health advisory based on the results of a number of studies and warned doctors treating patients with kidney disease or cancer not to push hemoglobin levels over 12 grams per deciliter of blood.

The FDA noted a higher chance of death and an increased rate of tumor growth in cancer patients with advanced head and neck cancer receiving radiation therapy and in patients with metastatic breast cancer receiving chemotherapy, when ESAs were given to maintain levels of more than 12.
There was also a higher rate of death reported, but no fewer blood transfusions, when ESAs were given to patients with cancer and anemia who were not receiving chemotherapy.

A higher chance of death and an increased number of blood clots, strokes, heart failure and heart attacks were found in patients with chronic kidney failure when ESAs were given to raise hemoglobin levels of more than 12.
The Advisory warned that a higher risk of blood clots was also reported in patients who were scheduled for major surgery and received ESAs.

The FDA pointed out that ESAs are not approved for treatment of the symptoms of anemia, such as fatigue in patients with cancer, surgical patients and patients with HIV.

The drug makers have been using direct-to-consumer advertising to increase sales with cancer patients by claiming the drugs could restore energy and reduce fatigue in patients undergoing chemotherapy. But the FDA says there has never been any evidence to support claims that ESAs could increase energy or ease fatigue in patients undergoing cancer treatment.

In recent months, Congress has been investigating Medicare reimbursement policies that guarantee dialysis clinics a 6% profit for administering ESAs, since it became apparent that patients are being given higher doses than needed. Critics say any deal that allows for cost plus payments comes with a built-in incentive to provide unnecessary services.

On October 24, 2006, the Boston Globe reported that dialysis clinics are also increasing profits by administering ESAs intravenously instead of by injection, and about 95% of the patients receive the drugs intravenously.

Clinics could use 30% less, the Globe says, because when ESAs are injected they stay in the system longer and require a lower dose. A 2004 analysis found patients injected with the drugs were given 21% less, for a potential total savings of about $375 million.

The two clinic chains that dominate the dialysis industry are DaVita, with over 1,200 clinics, and Fresenius Medical Care, with about 1,500. According to the Globe, the clinics claim the intravenous method is more convenient because patients are already hooked up to IVs for dialysis.

Critics think differently. “The industry is incentivized to use intravenous because they make a profit margin on every unit they administer,” said Dr Peter Crooks, who oversees dialysis for 3,000 patients for Kaiser Permanente where most patients receive injections.

In an April 11, 2007 report, Bernstein Research estimates that dose volume in renal patients could fall as much as 25% if doctors abide by the new black box warning and insurers refuse to pay for the drugs in patients with hemoglobin levels over 12.

On November 17, 2006, the British journal Lancet reported that about half of all dialysis patients have hemoglobin levels above what the FDA considers safe, and about 20% of patients experience dangerously high levels, creating a risk for heart attack and stroke.

FDA Avandia Mole Defends Off Label Marketing of Natrecor

Evelyn Pringle August 12, 2007

It looks like that Mafia guy, Dr Steven Nissen, leader of the Cleveland Clinic gang, who blew the whistle on the diabetes drug Avandia and before that Vioxx, was on to something when he voted against the FDA’s approval of the heart failure drug Natrecor in 2001.

Giving once- or twice-weekly outpatient injections of Natrecor does not reduce the risk of death or hospitalization for heart or kidney problems, according to research presented at the American College of Cardiology meeting in New Orleans in March 2007.

In fact, the study of 920 patients found that outpatient use of Natrecor provided absolutely no benefit. The finding should halt the practice of giving once- or twice-weekly Natrecor to outpatients, said researcher Dr Clyde Yancy, medical director of the Baylor Heart and Vascular Institute in Dallas, Health Day reported on March 26, 2007.

Of course, the revelation that Dr Nissen was running the Cleveland Clinic Mafia and that they were out to get GlaxoSmithKline by publishing a study that showed Avandia increased the risk of heart attacks and deaths came in an email to reporters from FDA spokesman Douglas Arbesfeld, which included the warning to other drug companies, “if you don’t hire the Cleveland Clinic for your big trials then you face the firing squad from Nissen and Company.”

Mr Arbesfeld left his position as a highly-paid spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson to become a dedicated public servant at the FDA, if his supporters are to be believed.

When his conduct of sending the email came under scrutiny, Peter Pitts, who co-authored a June 6, 2007, critical commentary in the Washington Times about the Avandia study and fondly referred to Dr Nissen as a “Patron Saint of Drug Safety” and “Saint Steven the Pure,” put out a statement on the internet saying that, by sending the email, Mr Arbesfeld was just defending the FDA and praised his selfless work, stating:

“I know Doug Arbesfeld,” he wrote, “and he is a guy devoted to advancing the public health,” he wrote.

“He is also a guy who took a pretty significant pay cut to put in some time in public service,” Mr Pitts pointed out.

In response to that assertion, it could certainly be argued that a mole at the FDA would be in a position to earn far more money by selling invaluable insider information to all the drug companies than as media person working for one company.

It should be noted that in his email to reporters, Mr Arbesfeld also referred to Dr Nissen as St Steven – surely just by coincidence.

For the record, the Cleveland Clinic is rated as the top cardiac center in the country by US News and World Report, and Dr Nissen holds the number 72 position on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in our world.

An effort that included at least 50 different google searches on the internet over a period of several days found no similar praise listed for Mr Arbesfeld other than Mr Pitts’ recent two-liner that showed up on about every search.

At the end of his Times commentary, Mr Pitts listed himself as the president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest and a former FDA associate commissioner, but a little checking revealed that he is also a Senior Vice President at the public relations firm of Manning, Selvage & Lee.

A review of the Manning website shows that the firm’s clients have included Pfizer, Eli Lilly, AstraZeneca, Sanofi-Aventis, Johnson & Johnson, Genentech, Novartis, Amgen and Hoffmann La-Roche.

A review of Mr Pitts’ articles on the internet clearly shows that he is in lockstep with his industry clients against: (1) allowing Americans to import drugs from other countries to cut costs; (2) allowing the government to negotiate lower drug prices; (3) barring drug makers from promoting their drugs for uses not approved by the FDA; (4) cutting back on direct-to-consumer advertising, and (5) adding black box warnings to product labels.

As luck would have it, a bit more checking found a December 16, 1999, press release by the Healthcare Marketing & Communications Council which reported that Mr Arbesfeld had joined Manning, Selvage & Lee as Senior Vice President.

The list of pharmaceutical companies that Mr Arbesfeld has worked for over the years includes Ciba-Geigy in 1994, and Rhone Poulenc Rorer Pharmaceuticals in 1998, the same year the company announced that it would merge with Hoechst AG to become Aventis, which merged with Sanofi-Synthelabo in 2004 to become Sanofi-Aventis.

In 1999, Mr Arbesfeld would have been working for the Manning clients listed above, and on August 5, 2002, he identified himself to Reuters as promoting a prescription drug card program called “Together Rx” for 7 drug companies that included Bristol-Myers, Aventis, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Abbott Laboratories and Novartis.

Finally, Mr Arbesfeld is listed as the contact person for Johnson and Johnson subsidiaries Janssen Pharmaceutica, Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical and Ortho Biotech Products in the 2005 Reporters Handbook.

While his supporters say Mr Arbesfeld’s email to reporters was justified, lawmakers on Capitol Hill see it differently and have launched an investigation into what they refer to as a smear campaign against Dr Nissen. At a June 6, 2007, hearing before the US House Oversight Government Reform Committee, in response to questions about Mr Arbesfeld email stunt, FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach claimed that he did not approve of the email and told the lawmakers, “I completely concur with you that it was inappropriate and unacceptable.”

“It was an inappropriate and unfortunate act on the part of an individual,” he said, “which has been addressed through disciplinary procedures.”

In a letter to the FDA Commissioner, the lawmakers said they found it troubling that Mr Arbesfeld might be trying to settle old scores with Dr Nissen because he cast the lone vote against the approval of the heart drug Natrecor (nesiritide) and later spoke out against the off-label use of the drug in a New York Times article in which Mr Arbesfeld spoke on behalf of the drug’s maker J&J subsidiary Scios.

The fact is, a review of the regulatory history behind Natrecor proves that Dr Nissen was right then, just as he is now about Avandia.

The drug was approved for limited use by hospitalized patients with acute congestive heart failure, to be administered intravenously under close supervision. However, due to a massive off-label marketing campaign, the drug was soon being administered in outpatient settings at a much greater dose and for longer periods of time than recommended.

In May 2005, the New York Times reported that tens of thousands of patients were undergoing “tune-ups” at outpatient clinics by receiving weekly infusions of Natrecor over a period of months.

In the July 14, 2005, New England Journal of Medicine, apparently another Mafia guy from the Cleveland Clinic gang, Dr Eric Topol, was out to get J&J because he reported that the company was encouraging physicians to open their own infusion centers to bill Medicare for Natrecor treatment and that company documents instructed doctors to bill Medicare $408 for eight hours of observation during the infusion, above and beyond the actual cost of the drug, which was around $500 per vial, he said.

In addition, the company set up a toll-free telephone hotline for “Natrecor Reimbursement Support” and published a 46-page reimbursement and billing guide to provide doctors with specific Medicare billing codes.

“Natrecor was never shown to be superior for reducing death or reducing the need for repeat hospitalizations,” Dr Topol said, and asked: “How could this happen? All of a sudden we have 600,000 people using this drug.”

He also pointed out that other drugs, costing less than $10 a dose, were equally effective.

The Natrecor infusion-for-profit scheme was indeed on a roll. J&J had recruited doctors and nurses with experience in administering infusions to deliver presentations at medical seminars, and some clinics had programs set up to administer Natrecor to patients twice a week for up to 12 weeks. In 2004, Natrecor brought in about $400 million for J&J, and sales were projected to be $700 million for 2005.

However, the profiteers were hit with a ton of bricks on April 20, 2005, when a study appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association that reported patients treated with Natrecor were 80% more likely to die in the 30 days following the treatment than patients given a placebo, by Dr Jonathan Sackner-Bernstein of the North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, NY; Drs Marcin Kowalski and Marshal Fox, of St Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center in NY; and Dr Keith Aaronson of the University of Michigan.

On April 26, 2005, in response to the findings of the study, Mr Arbesfeld told HeartWire, “We take any question about the safety of Natrecor seriously.”

“At the same time,” he said, “a review of Scios’s full clinical study data set does not show a statistically significant difference in mortality.”

Although the collective data from the studies reflects a 23% higher death rate for those taking Natrecor, Mr Arbesfeld said, the number of patients in the studies was too small to produce conclusive results of death risk, in a Reuters article on April 25, 2007.

In response to comments about Natrecor not being approved for outpatient use, Mr Arbesfeld told the Times that the FDA label did not specify where the drug could be administered, so giving it in an outpatient setting did not run counter to its approved use.

However, that Mafia guy from the Cleveland Clinic, Dr Nissen, told the Times that treating patients in ambulatory settings was “inappropriate and cannot be recommended.”

Before long, more doctors began speaking out. Cardiologist Dr Milton Packer, chairman of the advisory panel that voted to approve the drug, told the Times on May 17, 2005, that Natrecor was not intended for outpatient use. “We said this is a drug that should be approved for patients who are short of breath at rest, who are hospitalized,” he said.

He also faulted the FDA’s approval of a label that did not specify that Natrecor was for hospital use only.

Dr Sackner-Bernstein expressed outrage in the Health Day Report. “The people involved at Scios and others who knew about this data should be hanging their heads,” he said.

“What is wrong with everybody,” he continued, “that you’ve got a drug that increases renal dysfunction and death, and costs 50 times as much as a regular treatment, and yet it’s given to hundreds of thousands of people?”

After the April study came out, J&J hired a heart specialist, Dr Eugene Braunwald, to form a committee to review the studies, and the committee reached the same conclusion, that it was inappropriate to use Natrecor except with acutely ill hospitalized patients.

Specifically, the panel said, Natrecor should be used only when patients show up at a hospital with acute heart failure; that it should not replace diuretics as the front-line treatment; and that it should not be used where patients schedule appointments to receive the drug ahead of time.

Their report also stated: “Scios should immediately undertake a proactive educational program to inform physicians regarding the conditions and circumstances in which [Natrecor] should and should not be used.”

So what did J&J do in response? According to Dr Packer, who was a member of the panel, the committee members were shocked several weeks later when they received invitations from a mass mailing to enroll in a continuing medical education program, sponsored by Scios, that appeared to promote the outpatient use.

“We were flabbergasted,” Dr Packer told the Times on August 1, 2005. “Scios was sponsoring meetings to discuss nesiritide and its potential use in outpatients.”

As so often happens these days, this drugging-for-profit scheme caught the attention of lawmakers because about 80% of the patients receiving Natrecor were on Medicare.
D-Day came on December 5, 2005, when the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that Medicare would no longer pay for outpatient infusions.

But the Natrecor story is far from over because, according to Johnson & Johnson’s 2006 Annual Report, the company received a subpoena from the US Attorney’s Office, District of Massachusetts, in July 2005, seeking documents related to the sales and marketing of Natrecor, and in August 2005, J&J was advised that the investigation would be handled by the US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California in San Francisco.

The latest news came on March 12, 2007, when J&J revealed that it had received 3 new subpoenas from the US Attorneys’ offices in Philadelphia, Boston and San Francisco wanting information for the investigation into the company’s sales and marketing of Natrecor.

More recently, in an apparent repeat of the exact same scam, investigators have found that J&J and Amgen have been paying doctors to administer the anemia drugs Aranesp, Epogen and Procrit off label for profit. On May 9, 2007, the New York Times reported that drug makers are paying “hundreds of millions of dollars to doctors every year in return for giving their patients anemia medicines.”

The Times cited documents obtained from a former employee of a group of 6 cancer doctors which showed that between them, the 6 doctors received $2.7 million from Amgen for prescribing $9 million worth of anemia drugs in 2006.

On May 10, 2007, the Wall Street Journal cited a document provided by a former J&J sales representative-turned-whistleblower which showed that a doctor who purchased nearly $1 million worth of Procrit over 15 months would receive $237,885.

In March 2007, the FDA ordered black box warnings on the drug’s labels about an increased risk of numerous adverse events and issued a public health advisory warning health care providers to administer the lowest possible dose necessary to treat anemia.

According to the FDA, as of March 2007, there are five clinical trials that demonstrated decreased survival time in cancer patients receiving the drugs compared with those receiving transfusion support.

The agency also reported a higher rate of blood clots, strokes, heart failure, heart attacks and death were found in patients with chronic kidney failure when the drugs were given to raise hemoglobin levels higher than recommended.

The FDA advisory also noted a higher risk of blood clots in patients who were scheduled for major surgery and received the anemia drugs and also warned of an increased rate of tumor growth in patients with advanced head and neck cancer receiving radiation therapy and metastatic breast cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, when the drugs were given to maintain levels higher than recommended.

J&J is already facing several class-action lawsuits filed by shareholders as a result of the revelation of this latest drugging-for-profit scheme, and the company has also received a subpoena from New York’s attorney general requesting information on the sales and promotional activities related to Procrit.

But then, why should J&J worry over a minor little investigation by the NY attorney general. The feds have been investigating the Natrecor fiasco for more than 2 years, and the J&J executives who reaped the benefits have probably not lost one wink of sleep.