Personal Responsibility, Corporate Style: A Lesson from Johnson & Johnson

An item from a few days back that State House followers might have missed:

Last Monday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley announced that the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson agreed to settle charges that it had encouraged physicians and pharmacies — through direct payments and kickbacks –to prescribe and promote drugs for uses that had not been approved as safe or effective.

Among the drugs illegally promoted by Johnson & Johnson was Risperdal. Although Risperdal had been approved only for treating patients with schizophrenia, Johnson & Johnson established a special sales force to sell the drug in nursing homes, touting its ability to control disruptive behaviors like agitation and impulsiveness in elderly patients with dementia, while declining to disclose that the drug could also cause serious health problems — including an increased risk of strokes — in those patients.

Under the settlement, Johnson & Johnson will pay $2.2 billion in fines and penalties, $62.5 million to Massachusetts. That $62.5 million is only a fraction of the money the state paid in false claims for Risperdal. And it’s only a fraction of the profit — $28.9 billion — that Johnson & Johnson has made on Risperdal. And none of that settlement money goes to the families whose loved ones were given Risperdal and experienced health problems as a consequence – they are on their own.

As it happened, on the day of the Risperdal announcement, members of the House of Representatives were busy crafting amendments to the welfare bill that House leadership had put forward. Busiest, as usual on the subject of welfare, were the members of the minority party, always deeply concerned to find and thwart those who, according to the press release of Deputy Sheriff Shaunna O’Connell, would “game the system and abuse the trust of Massachusetts citizens.” The very, very few people (7/10’s of one percent of recipients) who have what the Republicans regard as suspiciously high balances on their EBT cards remain on their most-wanted list of those who need to learn “personal responsibility.” (If you’re interested, the average balance among the 550,000 households who receive assistance through EBT cards is $45.)

In commenting on the Risperdal settlement, the Johnson & Johnson spokesperson was at pains to emphasize that only one criminal charge had been entered and that charge was entered against the company, not against any one individual. Indeed, the person in charge of marketing when the drug was being actively and improperly promoted for geriatric patients, Alex Gorsky, is now the company’s chief executive.

In other words, at Johnson & Johnson, there may have been corporate misconduct, but there was certainly no personal responsibility.

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