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Insys 'Closer' lap-danced to woo doctor into writing opioid prescriptions

The drug had only been approved for use in cancer patients suffering "breakthrough'' pain

Jef Feeley & Janelle Lawrence 

painkiller
Photo: Shutterstock

A former Insys Therapeutics Inc. sales manager performed a lap dance for a doctor being wooed to write more prescriptions for the company’s opioid painkiller, a Boston jury heard at the start of a racketeering trial against the company’s former chief executive.

Holly Brown, a former Insys sales representative in Chicago, said in 2012 she, her boss Sunrise Lee, and another Insys sales rep took Dr Paul Madison to The Underground -- a high-end nightclub near the Chicago River. She then spotted Lee, a former stripper, and the physician in an intimate moment, Brown told the jury.

“She was sitting on his lap, kind of bouncing around, and he had his hands all over her chest,’’ Brown said. Lee was hired to be a “closer’’ with doctors targeted in the Subsys marketing program, according to a government witness who prosecutors are expected to call in the case.

Brown, testifying against Insys’s former CEO John Kapoor and other former colleagues accused of bribing doctors and lying to insurers to boost sales of Subsys, said she was uncomfortable with Lee’s methods. “It was something that I, as an employee, was unwilling to engage in,’’ she said.

On the first day of testimony, prosecutors sought to grab jurors’ attention with racy details about the lengths to which Insys officials would go to market Subsys for off-label use among doctors. The drug had only been approved for use in cancer patients suffering “breakthrough’’ pain.

Brown told jurors Lee played up her sexuality as part of her sales pitch. Lee dressed in a “sexually suggestive manner’’ and “showed more cleavage than the average sales rep,’’ Brown said. Lee is also charged in the case.

Her lawyers have decried the government’s focus on Lee, saying prosecutors are objectifying her and turning her into a lightning rod. The government likes the lap-dance allegation “because it’s sexy, and that’s the only reason,’’ Peter Horstmann, Lee’s lawyer, said in opening statements Monday.

During cross examination by Horstmann, Brown acknowledged she’d been drinking the night of the lap-dance incident and wasn’t comfortable being at the club, which she described as “loud, a little trashy, not my style.” When Horstmann questioned whether Madison “appeared to be taking advantage of Miss Lee,” Brown agreed with the characterization.

U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs turned down Lee’s request for a separate trial, saying since the government had charged the Insys managers with conspiracy, it was entitled to try them together.

Speakers’ Fees

Kapoor and four other former Insys sales managers are charged with racketeering and conspiracy for allegedly bribing doctors with speakers’ fees and then duping insurers into covering the prescriptions by lying about what kind of patients were receiving the drug. He and the other defendants are facing as long as 25 years in prison.

Alec Burlakoff, Insys’s ex-sales chief, is expected to testify he hired Lee, who had no background in pharmaceutical sales, to entice doctors into writing more prescriptions. Court filings by whistle-blowers quote Burlakoff as saying “doctors really enjoyed spending time with her and found Sunrise to be a great listener.” The former exotic dancer served as “more of a closer,” he allegedly said.

Madison received at least $70,000 from Insys in speaker fees, according to prosecutors.

Burlakoff and Michael Babich, Insys’s former CEO, will be the government’s star witnesses in the trial. The defense blames Burlakoff for coming up with the idea of using a speaker’s program to bribe doctors and boost Subsys sales.

Pleaded Guilty

The duo have pleaded guilty to charges tied to the racketeering and conspiracy case and have agreed to cooperate with the government. They are among more than a half dozen current and former Insys employees slated to testify about the bribery allegations.

It’s legal for drug companies to pay doctors to tout opioid painkillers to their colleagues at educational dinners, but prosecutors contend Insys executives illegally used the fees as a quid pro quo for Subsys prescriptions.

Brown said she would schedule Subsys dinners for Chicago pain-management doctors who would then invite friends in other specialties. “The idea was these weren’t really meant to be educational programs but were meant to be rewards to physicians,” she said.

The dinners were always scheduled at the Roka Akor restaurant in Chicago -- which Kapoor owned, Brown said. The Japanese steakhouse offers one of the best private dining rooms in the Windy City, according to its website.

Madison was convicted in Chicago in December of unrelated charges, including six counts of health care fraud and three counts of making false statements, according to the U.S. Attorney in Chicago. Madison faces as much as 10 years in prison on each count of health care fraud. He’s scheduled to be sentenced March 25.

The case is U.S. v. Kapoor et. al, 16-cr-10343, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).

First Published: Wed, January 30 2019. 10:24 IST
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