GlaxoSmithKline and Humana, drug companies and insurers awaiting Supreme Court decision

The U.S. Supreme Court justices are scheduled to have one of their regular conferences to consider what cases they will decide to hear in full and one of the possibilities pits drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline against health insurer Humana.

The case is GlaxoSmithKline v. Humana Medical Plans, Inc., 12-690.

The gist of the case is disagreement over whether Medicare laws allow private insurance companies to sue a provider of care (GSK in this instance) for double damages in certain situations when the patient is a Medicare beneficiary using a Medicare Advantage health plan.

This dispute is part of the lingering litigation that GSK is fighting in the wake of the mess that was Avandia, its diabetes drug that was once a top seller. Part of the problem is that from 2001 to 2007, federal prosecutors said, GSK withheld safety data about heart concerns from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Besides thousands of suits by patients alleging harmful side effects, the company paid $3 billion to settle charges brought by the U.S. Justice Department that involved marketing practices. The company leaders from 2001 through 2007 are no longer GSK leaders.

GSK is based in London, but it employs thousands of people in the Philadelphia region. Humana is national insurer, with headquarters in Louisville.

If the Supreme Court justices decide to take the case, the next step would be oral arguments, but those probably would be scheduled for the fall term that begins in October.

Philadelphia attorney Nina Gussack, who served as chairwoman of Pepper Hamilton's executive committee for several years and has a reputation as one of the top defenders of pharmaceutical companies, is guiding the firm's efforts for GSK, along with George Lehner, Thomas Zemaitis and Kenneth Zucker.

District Court Judge Cynthia Rufe initially ruled in favor of GSK in 2011, dismissing Humana's lawsuit that it filed in federal court in Philadelphia in 2010. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which is also based in Philadelphia, overruled and said Humana could sue for double damages.

GSK urged the Supreme Court to hear the company's case because there are conflicting rulings between several courts of appeal on similar cases.