Blowing The Whistle On Drugmakers' Misdeeds Takes Guts, Stamina : Shots - Health News Interviews with 26 whistleblowers reveal a mix of motives and common challenges. Personal integrity was a more important factor than money.
NPR logo Blowing The Whistle On Drugmakers' Misdeeds Takes Guts, Stamina

Blowing The Whistle On Drugmakers' Misdeeds Takes Guts, Stamina

Who hasn't looked around at work and concluded some things look pretty screwy? Most of us complain a little, shrug our shoulders and then move on.

Are you sure you want to do that? hide caption

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Are you sure you want to do that?

But let's say you work for a company that makes prescription drugs and the screwy stuff includes selling medicines for uses that the Food and Drug Administration never approved, paying kickbacks or fudging prices to get more money out of the government. What would you do then?

A few people blow the legal whistle, filing lawsuits that the feds sometimes use as a springboard to recover lots of money from the companies. Successful whistleblowers can get rich.

Just last month AstraZeneca agreed to pay $520 million to settle fraud charges, after a former drug rep helped the government investigate problems with Seroquel. It the second time in that role for the guy, who worked at Eli Lilly earlier.

But what motivates these people to turn on their employers? And what's it like for them once they do? For answers, check out this fascinating report in the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Researchers interviewed 26 whistleblowers, involved in drug company cases settled between 2001 and 2009. Twenty-two of them were insiders. They found that most of the people never intended to file a lawsuit but ended up going that route after other options, such as reporting the problems internally, failed.

Personal integrity and self-preservation are bigger motivations than the promise of a big payday. As one person told the researchers, "It was just something I knew was wrong. I needed to correct it." And then there was the darker, "If these guys go down I'm not going to be the one that gets blamed for all of this."

Deciding to complain starts a long, hard road, though. Most of the insiders were pressured by their companies and paid a big career price, including being fired.

The investigations tooks years to resolve, an average of 4.9 years for the people in the NEJM analysis. Twenty of the 26 people interviewed got $1 million of more for their efforts. Five made less than $1 million. One person wouldn't provide an estimate.

"The prevailing sentiment was that the payoff had not been worth the personal cost," the researchers write.

The whistleblowers offer advice to people who might follow in their footsteps. Don't do it for the money, advises one, "But if you're doing it for the right reasons? Then go for it." But a couple of the others say it's not worth the personal price, with one declaring, "Honestly I would not advise anybody to do it."

Last fall we talked with John Kopchinski, a West Point grad and former Pfizer sales rep, who helped the government on a case that eventually contributed to the largest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history.

Why did he blow the whistle? "You have to live with yourself when you look at yourself in the mirror," he said.