Oswald Bilotta provided the public with an insider’s look into the pharmaceutical industry in an exclusive interview with NBC News published on July 7.
A former sales representative for Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Bilotta filed a whistleblower lawsuit under the False Claims Act (FCA) in 2011. He alleged that Novartis provided special treatment to physicians and spent lavishly to treat them—in exchange, the physicians were to prescribe their patients Novartis drugs. Expensive dinners and drinks, fancy catered events, and pricey seats at sporting events are just some of the gifts that Bilotta claimed Novartis gave participating physicians.
The U.S. government joined the case in 2013. It alleged that between 2002 and 2011, Novartis hosted speaker programs that claimed to have an educational basis but, in reality, functioned as a space in which the company could bribe physicians. At these events, usually held at expensive restaurants, Novartis would pay physicians lofty speaker’s fees. Sometimes, the programs would not even occur. However, Novartis would still pay the physician speaker as a bribe to prescribe Novartis drugs, according to the allegations of the Department of Justice (DOJ).
In his interview with NBC News, Bilotta said that when he joined Novartis in 1999, “he felt he had made it” because of the positions’ competitiveness. But shortly after he began working there, he observed that “keeping high-prescribing doctors happy was an intense focus.” Early on in his sales representative position, Bilotta encountered a doctor who expected to receive a $100 restaurant gift certificate in exchange for prescribing a Novartis drug to 10 patients. Sales representatives themselves were given “hundreds of dollars in American Express gift checks to present to doctors.”
During his tenure with Novartis, the misconduct Bilotta witnessed only worsened. “We went from a strictly product focus to one that is more about incentivizing,” he said. NBC reports that “in the mid-2000s, Novartis began ramping up its doctor speaker programs”—programs that, as the public now knows, were mostly shams focused on paying bribes for doctors and promoting Novartis drugs.
Even though Novartis “created a compliance department in 1999,” the fraudulent activity was not investigated; instead, the company actively suppressed it. The settlement stated that “compliance training materials discouraged sending emails about the activities.” In presentations, the chief compliance officer urged employees to discuss matters over the phone rather than in writing.
When Bilotta went to a superior in 2010 and said he had “evidence of fraud,” he was threatened and began working with law enforcement in 2011 before filing the FCA lawsuit. His work included wearing a wire at the behest of law enforcement to record interactions with doctors during which cash bribes were taken. Bilotta’s name was later leaked, which led to his receiving “death threats and online taunts.”
Bilotta retired from Novartis in 2013 and said that now, “he wants to work to change health care practices and laws that harm patients and taxpayers.”
“The whole system needed to be blown up and pieced together in a fair way — fair for taxpayers and good for patients,” Bilotta said of the pharmaceutical industry.