Reuben Guttman: The lawyer pharma loves to hate

Reuben Guttman wants us all to be concerned about what’s in our medicine cabinets. A Washington lawyer who specializes in prosecuting pharmaceutical fraud, Guttman has gone after Pfizer, Abbott, GlaxoSmithKline, and several other top drug makers — and he usually wins big, recouping billions of dollars for federal and state governments.

STAT talked with Guttman about bad behavior in the drug industry, and whom he trusts for his own medical care.

The lawsuits you’ve won often center on unlawful marketing and kickback schemes. How widespread are these practices? 

The problem is pervasive and exists throughout the entire health care system. It starts when the captains of publicly traded health care companies make promises to Wall Street with regard to revenue projections. Those promises result in compromises to pure medical decision-making. Drugs are marketed to patients — that is to say, put in patients’ bodies — not for reasons of medical necessity but because the pharmaceutical company needs to make its revenue mark.

How does your work as a lawyer impact the health care system?

I think that we bring litigation which surfaces information demonstrating how medical decision-making has been tainted by economic drivers, including bonuses and promises to Wall Street.

And the consequence for patients?

The collateral damage is a huge amount of health care dollars wasted and patients put at risk through drugs that are marketed without regard to their safety and efficacy.

Is there anything patients can do to protect themselves?

We’re in an era where people have to ask questions — really hard questions — especially if you’re a parent and a kid’s getting a drug or a procedure.

Knowing what you know, do you avoid doctors and hospitals?

I don’t think anybody has the luxury of avoiding doctors and hospitals.

What’s the next big pharma scam? 

The market for medical information has been poisoned. The evidence with Risperdal [an antipsychotic medication] indicated that Janssen used aghostwriter to help generate journal articles signed by doctors, then placed [those articles] in the hands of sales representatives or into the stream of medical information so they would influence prescription-writing behavior.

What do you do in your spare time?

I follow the Washington Capitols.

Are you an athlete yourself? 

I play in an ice hockey league in suburban Maryland, just outside of D.C. Some of the guys I play [against] show up defending some of the pharma companies.

As a litigator, you have to see the negative in everyone. Is it hard to go through life that way, always taking the cynical view?

There’s going to be greed and discrimination. If you’re going to be on the public interest side, you’re always figuring out how to monitor and how to challenge.

When you were a kid, did you fantasize about being a whistleblower attorney?

What I really wanted to do was be an investigative journalist, but when I got out of college those jobs were hard to find.

Reuben Guttman is a founding partner at Guttman, Buschner & Brooks. This interview has been edited and condensed.