AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Closing arguments wrapped up today in the trial of onetime billionaire John Kapoor, the founder of the pharmaceutical company Insys Therapeutics and other former Insys executives are charged with racketeering. Federal prosecutors believe they oversaw a scheme to bribe doctors to prescribe an opioid painkiller and deceived insurance companies to make sure the drug was covered. Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WGBH has been following the criminal trial in Boston's federal courthouse.
Welcome to the program.
GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Thank you.
CORNISH: Describe these allegations against Kapoor and his co-defendant.
EMANUEL: So all of it centers around this drug company Kapoor founded, called Insys Therapeutics, and the drug they developed, called Subsys. This is a fentanyl-based painkiller that the FDA approved to treat cancer patients in severe pain. Just for reference, it's up to a hundred times stronger than morphine and very addictive. The allegations are twofold. First, bribery. Insys Therapeutics allegedly created this phony speakers program as a way to pay doctors. But the doctors would only be paid as speakers if they wrote lots of prescriptions for Subsys, and often these prescriptions were written at very high doses and to patients who didn't have cancer.
This second part of this alleged scheme involves lying to insurance companies. The goal was to get this very expensive medication, which can be tens of thousands of dollars a month, covered by insurance. Prosecutors say Insys had employees pretend to be from the doctor's office and make up diagnoses to make sure the medication got approved.
CORNISH: What's the significance of Kapoor and his co-defendants being charged with racketeering?
EMANUEL: Racketeering, or RICO laws, were originally designed to go after organized crime. So think mafia bosses and drug lords. So anytime it's used against corporate executives - in this case, drug company executives - it's noteworthy. The federal government is essentially arguing here that the way this company did business was similar to the mob.
CORNISH: So the federal government spent more than nine weeks laying out their case, and I understand the defense attorneys rested in less than three days. So what was their argument?
EMANUEL: Yes. So their argument was basically, this drug is good, it really helps people. Kapoor was motivated by his personal experience, seeing his wife suffer from cancer as she died. But the real crux of the defense argument came during the cross-examination of government witnesses. The government relied on several former Insys executives, who pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution in the hopes of getting a more lenient sentence, and the defense basically argued that the jury shouldn't trust their testimony. They said, it's those guys who ran the illegal scheme. Kapoor knew nothing about it. And they have a track record of lying. And on top of that, they have an incentive to lie. They want a more favorable sentence, and they're contradicting each other. So nothing is proved here.
CORNISH: There are a lot of pharmaceutical companies facing legal troubles amidst the opioid epidemic. How does this compare to the other lawsuits we're hearing about?
EMANUEL: The really big difference here is that this is a criminal trial. If Kapoor and his co-defendants are found guilty, they face up to 20 years behind bars. So by pursuing this criminal case, the federal government appears to be sending a message that they are holding drug companies accountable for their alleged role in fueling the opioid epidemic. But the risk is if they lose this case, if the jury returns a not guilty verdict, that could put the brakes on this strategy.
CORNISH: Gabrielle Emanuel from member station WGBH in Boston. She's been following the criminal trial of drug company executive John Kapoor. Closing arguments in the 10-week case finished today. The jury starts deliberations on Monday.
Thank you for sharing your reporting with us.
EMANUEL: Thank you.
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