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December 20, 2013 7:10 pm
I was nervous when I was fitted with a wire. Standing in a sales meeting in a hotel in downtown Milwaukee, I could see the vehicles at street level, where the government investigators were listening in. It was reassuring to know if anything went wrong, they were right down there.
When I first blew the whistle on Amgen, the pharmaceuticals company where I worked for 15 years, I told investigators that if they wanted confirmation it was paying sweeteners to doctors, they should record our sales meetings. I thought they would bug the room. They said if someone wears a wire, they don’t have to go to a judge. They wanted me to work undercover, doing whatever I was asked without question right up until the day I was fired.
After I reported Amgen, I was worried about people finding out it was me. As time wore on, wearing a wire over 18 months, I became more comfortable and a little bold, asking questions that would prove what I was saying. I felt good about that – that I was demonstrating I was telling the truth.
I had been a pharmaceutical sales rep for 25 years. I started at Merck, which was a very good, ethical company. Amgen was the same when I arrived. They made us sign a document that we would be fired if we promoted a product off-label [outside the medical uses authorised by regulators]. But as we didn’t achieve the commercial success they expected, the situation went from “thou shalt not” to “if you don’t sell off-label, you’ll be fired”. I remember a meeting in San Diego. They had us memorise a script they put on the screen and we were tested on it, so there would be no paper trail. A rep pointed out we were being asked to do something illegal. He was told: “You guys are smart, use it [the message] but don’t leave it.”
We were giving out research grants all over the place to doctors, and buying influence. We pursued them to do studies so they would be beholden to us. Some physicians were making hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees talking about our drugs. We all knew those doctors were compromised.
We respected ethical rules limiting spending on entertainment for doctors. That was chump change compared with the money we were giving in discounts. I had doctors who were charging insurers $7,000-$8,000 per shot of a chemotherapy drug they only paid $1,500 for.
There was a growing sense that something was not right. But people were making so much money. One of my girlfriends was making $300,000-$400,000 a year. They had found a way for everyone to be compromised enough that they were willing to do what was necessary for the product. Eventually, I decided if I’m going to go down, I’ll go down in flames. Maybe I should have done it earlier. As you do your work every day, you’re thinking, we’re the knight on the white horse, protecting the market from your rivals, they are going to do it anyway, we’re just going to do it too – a lot of excuses like that.
My husband said if you don’t go to the government, I will. Finally, I said I’ll tell what I know, I’ll be fired, do my duty and that will be the end of it. Under the US system I knew only the first person to blow the whistle gets a reward. You could have knocked me over with a feather to find nobody had already reported it.
Were it not for the potential reward, up to $15m, I don’t know whether I would have stayed involved. I wanted the truth to prevail but you can’t kill yourself in the process. They didn’t even transcribe the wire taps at first. It was only through explaining over and over and over again that they finally decided to go ahead.
In December 2012, Amgen agreed a $762m settlement with the US government. I have not received any money yet. I’m willing to wait till everything is ironed out. The root of it all is the ungodly levels of money being made by the companies. There are many physicians who I respect as decent people trying to help their patients. There are others strictly in it for the money. I knew which of those I would go to.
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