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Share prices for the British drugmaker Indivior plunged today on the London Stock Exchange. The drop came on news that the U.S. Justice Department indicted the company on fraud and conspiracy charges. Indivior makes the drug Suboxone, widely used to treat people suffering from opioid addiction. Federal prosecutors now claim the company falsely marketed Suboxone as safer and less prone to abuse than cheaper generic drugs. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: The 28-count indictment filed in a Virginia court claims Indivior executives lied when they claimed dissolvable Suboxone films placed under the tongue would be safer, harder to misuse than generic tablets that were about to come on the market. Government investigators say, in some cases, Indivior's version of the drug was more risky. The indictment claims taxpayer-funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid were cheated out of billions of dollars. Justice Department officials declined NPR's request for an interview. Robert Bird is a professor of business law at the University of Connecticut who follows opioid cases closely. He says this criminal indictment sends a powerful signal to a drug industry already snared in the opioid addiction crisis.
ROBERT BIRD: Not only the companies that are being indicted but also other organizations and competitors who will look at these prosecutions and say, I don't want this to happen to me.
MANN: Indivior executives also declined to be interviewed by NPR. But company spokesperson Jennifer Ginther read from a prepared statement, denying any wrongdoing and describing the federal indictment as misguided.
JENNIFER GINTHER: Indivior's top priority has always been the treatment of patients struggling with opioid addiction. No other company has done more to fight the opioid crisis.
MANN: This point - Indivior's central role treating people addicted to opioids - represents a fascinating wrinkle in this case. The Justice Department has filed criminal charges against other opioid makers in the past, winning a guilty plea in a $600 million settlement from Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin in 2007. But Indivior doesn't actually make prescription painkillers. It makes drugs like Suboxone designed to treat people suffering from opioid dependency.
ALAN LESHNER: It's a highly effective medication that we endorse in our report.
MANN: Alan Leshner chaired a panel for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that released a new study last month finding that drugs like Suboxone are being underutilized. He worries that all the bad publicity surrounding drug companies and their products will make it harder for people struggling with opioid addiction to get treatment drugs.
LESHNER: So there's a tremendous amount of stigma surrounding everything related to addiction. And the stigma and misunderstanding has kept a tremendous number of people from getting the treatment that they need.
MANN: These recovery drugs matter because more than 100 Americans are still dying from opioid overdoses every day. But like other medications that contain opioids, Suboxone can be abused. This federal indictment claims that while Indivior downplayed the risks of their drugs, the company also boosted profits by helping create a black market connecting patients suffering from addiction with doctors writing too many prescriptions for Suboxone at too strong a dose. In its statement, Indivior rejected that claim, saying the company never deliberately diverted its product to increase sales.
The stakes here are high. If Indivior is found guilty, prosecutors say the company should forfeit at least $3 billion in penalties. Indivior and other big drugmakers, including Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson, already faced hundreds of civil lawsuits stemming from the opioid crisis. Brian Mann, NPR News.
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