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Insurer sues Pfizer for paying kickbacks to docs

/ Source: The Associated Press

A Texas health insurance company is suing Pfizer Inc. saying the drug maker deceptively marketed three of its top-selling drugs, illegally encouraging doctors to prescribe them for non-approved uses and paying kickbacks to doctors.

Health Care Service Corp., which runs Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas and covers 12.4 million people in four states, filed the lawsuit against Pfizer on June 4.

Pfizer has settled other similar lawsuits and agreed in September to pay $2.3 billion in civil and criminal penalties over its promotion of Bextra, Lyrica, Geodon and other drugs.

Health Care Service Corp., which said it found out about Pfizer's actions because of that settlement, claims the New York drug maker gave doctors misleading information about the safety and effectiveness of the anti-inflammatory drug Bextra, about anti-psychotic Geodon and about nerve pain and epilepsy treatment Lyrica.

The insurer claims in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas that Pfizer encouraged doctors to use the drugs for conditions they had not been approved to treat, a practice known as prescribing off-label.

Doctors can legally prescribe drugs off-label, but drug companies can't promote them to treat illnesses not listed on their federally approved labels.

The insurer also claims Pfizer paid kickbacks to doctors who prescribed the drugs.

Health Care Service Corp. did not say when the events occurred, but Bextra was pulled off the U.S. market in 2005 after evidence linked it to increased risk of heart attack, stroke and death.

Pfizer spokesman Chris Loder said the company denies all the allegations.

"This is a case of an insurance company seeking its money back for medicines that physicians prescribed appropriately using their best medical judgments," he said.

The lawsuit names Pfizer, its Pharmacia & Upjohn unit and four individuals: Rick Burch, who led Pfizer's arthritis and pain drug business; Jake Friedman, who led the business responsible for promoting drugs including Lyrica and Geodon; Mark Brown, who was involved in marketing anti-infection and HIV and AIDS drugs; and Matthew Lustig, a district sales manager in South Florida.