By Nate Raymond

BOSTON (Reuters) – The founder of Insys Therapeutics Inc put profits over patient safety by bribing doctors to prescribe an addictive fentanyl spray, fueling the U.S. opioid epidemic, a federal prosecutor said on Thursday at the end of a landmark trial.

John Kapoor, the drugmaker’s former chairman, and four colleagues are the first executives of a painkiller manufacturer to face trial for conduct that authorities say was tied to a drug abuse epidemic that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year.

Kapoor was arrested in 2017 on the same day U.S. President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency. In 2017, a record 47,600 people died of opioid-related overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathaniel Yeager told a federal jury in Boston in his closing argument that Kapoor sought to eliminate the risk of Insys failing after investing millions of dollars in founding it by bribing doctors to prescribe the company’s pain drug Subsys.

Yaeger said Chandler, Arizona-based Insys paid doctors to act as speakers at “bogus” events ostensibly meant to educate clinicians about Subsys, which contains fentanyl, a highly potent opioid.

“They eliminated that risk and transferred it to the patients who were prescribed that drug,” Yeager said. “Profits over patients.”

Doctors involved included those who ran “pill mills” and were under investigation, Yeager said. He said in exchange for money, doctors helped Insys exploit their patients, some of whom became addicted to Subsys, a drug meant only for treating cancer pain.

He said Kapoor also sought to defraud insurers into paying for Subsys and carried out the scheme with the help of his co-defendants, former Insys executives and managers Michael Gurry, Richard Simon, Sunrise Lee and Joseph Rowan.

But Beth Wilkinson, Kapoor’s attorney, argued that he never engaged in a racketeering conspiracy. She said Kapoor believed in Subsys’ promise and argued the patients who received it needed it to treat their pain.

“He wanted anyone who needed this medication to get it,” Wilkinson said.

She argued the prosecution’s star witnesses – former Insys Chief Executive Michael Babich and Alec Burlakoff, its ex-vice president of sales – lied about Kapoor’s role with the hope of getting lenient sentences after pleading guilty.

Wilkinson said prosecutors were ignoring those lies in hopes of convicting Kapoor.

“This story cannot be true,” Wilkinson said. “And they don’t care, because they’ve had their eye on this man and these people for years.”

(Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Scott Malone, Dan Grebler and Bill Berkrot)