Q&A: Whistle-blower lawyer on Amgen settlement, False Claims Act

This interview with Reuben Guttman was conducted by journalist Terry Baynes with Thomson Reuters.

California-based drugmaker Amgen Inc agreed on Tuesday to pay $24.9 million to settle allegations that it provided kickbacks to long-term care pharmacy providers to entice them to switch patients to its anemia drug Aranesp. Whistle-blower Frank Kurnik, a longtime Amgen employee, and the Justice Department accused the company of giving pharmacy providers rebates based on their volume of Aranesp prescriptions.

Reuben Guttman, a lawyer at Guttman, Buschner & Brooks PLLC, who brought the lawsuit on behalf of Kurnik, said the case reflects how prosecutions under the False Claims Act are focusing on conduct higher up the corporate ladder.

Amgen declined to provide a lawyer to discuss the settlement. The company in a statement about the settlement denied all of the allegations.

Reuters asked Guttman about the case and developments in False Claims Act litigation. The questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Reuters: What does the case reveal about the type of conduct coming under scrutiny in False Claims Act cases?

Guttman: Typically, you’re talking about kickbacks paid to doctors in a lot of these cases. Instead of going from doctor to doctor and hospital to hospital, Amgen allegedly orchestrated a scheme that paid kickbacks to long-term care pharmacy providers who influenced prescriptions at nursing homes. The case showed how decisions about patient care are being made hundreds of miles away, at a corporate level. Healthcare fraud schemes orchestrated at a corporatewide level are schemes that are going to draw more prosecutorial focus.

Reuters: What were some of the biggest challenges in bringing the case?

Guttman: Typically, in cases like this, you’re talking about numbers of witnesses who can testify to specific kickbacks paid to doctors. This was more complicated, which is why it’s significant. We had to show that the contractual relationships with these long-term care pharmacy providers were actually orchestrated to engage in unlawful conduct. It involved the aggregation of documents and testimony. The challenge is to dig down and show how the schemes are implemented.

Reuters: Was there anything unusual about the case?

Guttman: In comparison to other pharmaceutical cases, this one had a short lifespan. False Claims Act cases can last for more than five years. This one was filed in 2010 and resolved in 2013. That’s light speed for the investigation and resolution of a pharmaceutical case of any magnitude.

Reuters: What explains the faster timeline in this case?

Guttman: The Justice Department is getting more aggressive about investigating these cases. In addition, recent amendments to the False Claims Act give the government more expansive use of “civil investigative demands” before intervening in a case to obtain documents, which they can share with the whistle-blower’s lawyers. That has created new paradigms of government and whistle-blower lawyers working together in reviewing documents. Efficiencies from changes in the law allow cases to move quicker.

Reuters: Is the Justice Department intervening in these cases more often?

Guttman: It really depends on the evidence that’s brought to the Justice Department and the way in which the case is presented. Last year, the Justice Department got about 700 false claims cases. It gets harder and harder for the Justice Department to investigate cases when there are so many cases being filed. If the case is well documented, if the whistle-blower has sufficient facts and is credible, and the whistle-blower’s counsel is present and can present a case, there’s a greater chance of intervention.

Reuters: How is the role of the whistle-blower lawyer changing?

Lawyers for whistle-blowers have to anticipate that when they file a case, they’ll have to see that case through to trial. The frauds are more complex. Even where the case is a great one, you can’t count on the government intervening due to the number of fraud cases being filed. There’s a role for the whistle-blower lawyer who’s willing to be active, work with experts and cooperate with the government in pursuing cases. The government is going to be looking for mechanisms to leverage their resources.

Reuters: Does the case change if or when the government intervenes?

Guttman: Defendants act differently if the government is involved or not. There’s a fear factor that the government is bearing down on you.