Health Care

Drug rep for doctor sued over fentanyl spray prescriptions revealed as whistleblower

Internal emails from an opioid manufacturer under federal indictment for running an alleged kickback scheme show that Overland Park doctor Steven Simon was among prescribers that company executives held up as models to their sales force.
Internal emails from an opioid manufacturer under federal indictment for running an alleged kickback scheme show that Overland Park doctor Steven Simon was among prescribers that company executives held up as models to their sales force.

Recently unsealed court records reveal that a pharmaceutical sales representative who frequented the office of Overland Park doctor Steven Simon was working for the government as it built a federal case against his employer, Insys Therapeutics.

Federal indictments against Insys executives accuse them of using their speaker program to pay kickbacks to doctors for prescribing their powerful opioid spray, Subsys. Simon, who was one of the top-paid speakers in the program, is facing three lawsuits related to his Subsys prescribing, and the FBI served a search warrant last year at the pain clinic where he worked.

Now it turns out Torgny Andersson, a Kansas City-based drug rep who regularly visited Simon's office, was one of five industry insiders who filed whistleblower suits against Insys and started working with the government years ago.

“Mr. Andersson has assisted the Department of Justice with its investigation into Insys sales practices since October of 2013,” Andersson's attorney, Brian Madden, said.

Madden said he could say nothing more because the only document that has been unsealed in Andersson's whistleblower suit is his original complaint.

It's not clear whether Andersson's suit will affect the three civil cases against Simon. Andersson was among several Insys employees also named as defendants in those cases: two filed by former patients of Simon who say they were harmed by Subsys and withdrawal from it and one filed by the husband of a patient who died of an opioid overdose.

Madden wouldn't say whether he will ask the court to remove Andersson from those suits now that his whistleblower status has been revealed.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in those cases didn't respond to requests for comment.

Andersson's whistleblower complaint backs up federal prosecutors' claim that Insys executives engaged in an illegal kickback scheme by expressly telling their drug reps to pay physician speakers based on how many Subsys prescriptions they wrote.

"Insys often pays these speakers between $1,200 and $2,400 for talking even if the event is as short as 15 minutes long," Andersson's complaints says. "Sometimes speakers are paid although they never speak to any other physicians. They are paid to speak to no one although attendance forms may be falsified to give the appearance that other physicians attended the engagement."

But the complaint doesn't mention Simon or any other physician by name.

“We have been reliably informed that this suit does not relate to or affect Dr. Simon,” said Simon's lawyer, James Wyrsch, but said he could say no more.

Insys said in a financial disclosure filing last year that it had received a subpoena from U.S. attorney's offices in Kansas and several other states regarding physicians the company interacted with in those states. Some of the top-paid Subsys speakers in states like New York and Arizona are now facing legal charges brought by federal or state prosecutors.

But neither the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas nor the FBI has said whether Simon is under investigation. The FBI's Kansas City field office has confirmed only that it had a "lawful presence" last year at Simon's former office.

“I have no additional information at this point,” FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton said this week.

Andersson was Insys' sales rep for Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska. In that role he provided information to prescribers about Subsys, an oral fentanyl spray approved only to treat breakthrough cancer pain. He and other drug reps also arranged speaker programs where physicians well-versed in the drug could talk about it with other prescribers, usually over dinner.

Simon, a longtime speaker for several pharmaceutical companies, was the top-paid Subsys speaker in Andersson's territory and the eighth highest-paid nationwide, taking in $221,000 from August 2013 to December 2015.

Since the FBI visited his office — where he's no longer employed — Simon's attorneys have said he won't comment on Insys.

But in an interview with the Star about a month before that, Simon said his interactions with Insys were all professional and he never witnessed any of the kickbacks alleged in the federal indictments that were announced in December 2016.

He said that he read public news reports about allegations of pay-to-play at Insys' and knew that some drug reps and medical professionals in other parts of the country had pleaded guilty to giving and taking Subsys-related bribes.

But he thought they were isolated incidents and not part of a company-wide conspiracy like the one alleged by the feds.

“I also heard that if you had a good-looking female (sales rep), she would have sex with you if you would write the prescriptions," Simon said during the interview last year. "Torgny is not a good-looking female. Matter of fact, it’s one of the things he and I would joke about. He is a male with a big belly. He’s certainly not a good-looking female and so forth.

"Sure, I heard those type of things (about kickbacks). Did Torgny ever, or did anybody in the organization ever, offer me anything like that? Absolutely not. So from my own experience, my relationship with Subsys or Insys the company was virtually the same as it was with any other company I dealt with. It was professional.”

Simon said Andersson was his main point of contact with the company. But he was also an Insys speaker trainer and on an Insys medical advisory board. In those capacities, he said he met others associated with the company, including its billionaire founder, John Kapoor.

“When I went to the speaker training meetings and the ad board meetings, sure, I met the people who were there," Simon said. "But other than meeting them there, there was no interaction with them, other than saying hello and so forth and meeting them — them saying hello and me saying hello and so forth.”

Kapoor was indicted in November. He and six other Insys executives have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled for trial in January 2019. Three of them are defendants in the suits brought by Simon's former patients, but have asked that the civil actions be put on hold until the criminal charges are resolved.