An employee of Sanofi, a major pharmaceutical company, spoke up about the company’s kickback scheme intended to boost sales of its insulin medicines, and was rewarded by being fired.
That’s what Diane Ponte, a paralegal in the French company’s New Jersey office, claims in the whistle-blower lawsuit she filed against Sanofi. According to the Associated Press (AP), Ponte accuses Sanofi and more than 10 of its executives and former executives of spending millions to grease palms in the hope of influencing pharmacists to replace generic prescriptions for insulin with the Sanofi brand name version.
Ponte was fired in October, and a couple of weeks later, Sanofi's CEO was dumped because the board didn’t care for his management style, said AP, and because of slumping sales.
Ponte’s lawsuit alleges that his role in the kickbacks contributed to his ouster.
Ponte worked in Sanofi's diabetes division reviewing vendor contacts for their adherence to federal law. At the time, Sanofi operated under a corporate integrity agreement with the U.S. government mandating that it obey U.S. laws and report illegal activity. That agreement was the result of the company’s earlier failure, the AP story said, to follow federal health-care laws.
Corporate integrity agreements are now common in the pharmaceutical industry, and cases like this seem to show how toothless they are.
A statement by Sanofi, of course, denied retaliating against Ponte. It called her a "disgruntled former employee who is opportunistically attacking our company."
The lawsuit says that in March 2013, Ponte balked at approving nine contracts worth $34 million with two consulting firms, Deloitte LLP and Accenture PLC. Neither is a defendant in the suit. Ponte told her manager that she couldn't approve the contracts because they had been signed before she’d seen them, which was improper. They also called for huge payments although no services were being provided.
Ponte’s attorney, Rosemarie Arnold, told AP that the consulting firms used the money to induce hospitals, pharmacies and doctors to prescribe Sanofi insulin brands, including its top-selling product, Lantus.
"Accenture and Deloitte would make deals with the pharmacies whereby when a patient came in with a generic prescription for insulin, the pharmacist would push the Sanofi insulin," Arnold said. She said that if a prescription specified insulin made by Sanofi competitor Novo Nordisk, the pharmacists would urge patients and even contact their doctors to promote Sanofi’s product as a superior treatment.
Arnold said Sanofi did not report the bribery allegations or the internal probe.
The lawsuit claims that a Sanofi supervisor in the U.S. diabetes marketing division told Ponte that the CEO and the vice-president of the U.S. diabetes business knew she was withholding the consulting contracts and that the CEO was "extremely unhappy."
Arnold said the company conducted a "farce" internal investigation in which no one was disciplined, she said, but after which the supervisor and the VP, two key defendants, "retired" from Sanofi. The suit states that they each received "millions of dollars in severance packages and/or in their pensions," and both landed well-paid consultancies to Sanofi.
But Ponte’s treatment was different. She was criticized, threatened with violence and, the suit claims, physically assaulted by a manager. When she was fired in October, according to Arnold, a manager told her it was because she was a whistle-blower.
If Sanofi is like multiple other drug companies whose bad, illegal behavior we have regularly reported, Sanofi doesn’t perceive Ponte’s suit or any other breach of law as particularly troublesome. If they flout the law, get caught and have to pay, it’s just the cost of doing business in the U.S., where the billions of dollars they can reap in drug sales more than offsets any penalties for being scumbags.