New Jersey sues fentanyl maker, calls its conduct 'evil'

Sarah Fuller, 32, is buried in Berlin Cemetery. She died last year of a drug overdose, with fentanyl found in her blood. Her family believes that the drug was inappropriately marketed and prescribed. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)

TRENTON — A drug company that makes a powerful fentanyl painkiller spray has engaged in conduct that is “nothing short of evil,” New Jersey’s attorney general said Thursday after the state became the latest to sue.

The lawsuit alleges that Insys Therapeutics Inc.  directed its sales force to have doctors prescribe the drug Subsys for any type of chronic pain even though it was only approved for cancer patients who couldn’t benefit from other opioids.

A hearing three weeks ago held by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) featured an audiotape of an Insys representative, in a phone call with a pharmacy benefits manager, falsely claiming to be from a Cherry Hill doctor’s office. The rep uses phrases that suggested the patient was diagnosed with cancer and qualified for the drug when she did not.

Medicare was billed more than a quarter-million dollars. The disabled patient, Sarah Fuller, 32, of Stratford eventually died of an overdose that a civil suit filed by her estate alleges resulted from Insys’ practices.

Overdose deaths related to the synthetic opioid fentanyl have been increasing rapidly around the country but nearly all involve street versions of the drug that are created in clandestine overseas laboratories and mixed with heroin and other substances here.

But pharmaceutical fentanyl, which is supposed to be tightly controlled, has been at the center of multiple investigations into Chandler, Ariz.-based Insys.
Other opioid manufacturers and distributors — including Endo, Teva, and Amerisource Bergen, all with headquarters in the Philadelphia region — are also being targeted by, among others, 41 state attorneys general.

Delaware County filed its own lawsuit two weeks ago. Bensalem has said it would sue, as have several other municipalities, counties, and states around the country.

The Massachusetts attorney general’s office on Thursday announced a $500,000 settlement with Insys to resolve allegations that the company paid kickbacks to doctors to get them to prescribe the drug and then disguised them as speaker fees. Illinois previously reached a $4.5 million settlement with the company. FBI agents last year arrested the company’s former CEO on charges related to bribing physicians to prescribe the drug.

Insys has previously said that the marketing of Subsys was appropriate. A spokesman didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.

The New Jersey suit seeks financial damages and alleges that Insys created false records to get insurers to cover the drug for patients who didn’t need it.

“We contend that the company used every trick in the book, including sham speaking and consulting fees and other illegal kickbacks, in a callous campaign to boost profits from the sale of its marquee drug Subsys,” Attorney General Christopher Porrino said in a statement.

The estate of Sarah Fuller, the Stratford woman who died in March 2016, filed a civil suit against the company last spring alleging that “Insys infiltrated the medical community with lies, misinformation, kickbacks and financial rewards.” The nine-minute audiotape of the company rep’s conversation was obtained by subpoena in that action.

Fuller’s mother, Deborah, said after listening to the recording that she believed her daughter’s death should be classified as “homicide and the cause of death should be changed to ‘corporate greed.’”

Staff writer Don Sapatkin contributed to this article.