By Nate Raymond
BOSTON (Reuters) – A lawyer for Insys Therapeutics Inc’s one-time billionaire founder on Monday denied that he had any role in the U.S. opioid crisis as a federal prosecutor told jurors he ran a scheme to bribe doctors to prescribe an addictive fentanyl spray.
John Kapoor, the drugmaker’s former chairman, and four colleagues are the first painkiller manufacturer executives to face trial over conduct authorities say contributed to an opioid abuse crisis that has killed tens of thousands of people a year.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Lazarus told a Boston federal jury at the trial’s start that Kapoor oversaw the bribing of doctors who were paid to act as speakers at poorly-attended sham events at restaurants ostensibly meant to educate clinicians about its product, Subsys.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only approved Subsys as a treatment for severe cancer pain. Yet Lazarus said doctors who took bribes often prescribed Subsys to patients without cancer, creating higher sales.
“This is a case about greed, about greed and its consequences, the consequences of putting profits over people,” Lazarus said in his opening statement.
Lazarus said Insys also defrauded insurers into paying for Subsys. He said from 2012 to 2015 Kapoor had the help of co-defendants, former Insys executives and managers Michael Gurry, Richard Simon, Sunrise Lee and Joseph Rowan.
Kapoor’s lawyer, Beth Wilkinson, called those charges “patently false.”
She said Kapoor became dedicated to promoting Subsys after observing the pain his wife suffered due to breast cancer. She acknowledged Insys paid doctors but said Kapoor believed doctors really were being paid to talk up the product’s benefits.
“He thought the purpose was to educate other doctors,” Wilkinson told the court.
Kapoor’s 2017 arrest came 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.
In her opening statement, Wilkinson stressed that Subsys only makes up 0.03 percent of all U.S. opioid prescriptions.
“It is certainly not part of the opioid crisis,” she said.
Prosecutors plan to call as witnesses Michael Babich, Insys’ CEO from 2011 to 2015 who Lazarus called Kapoor’s “right-hand man,” and Alec Burlakoff, its ex-vice president of sales. Both have pleaded guilty.
Insys in August said it would pay at least $150 million to resolve a Justice Department probe into its marketing of Subsys.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Berkrot)