A Virginia pharmaceutical company was charged Tuesday in a billion-dollar marketing fraud scheme aimed at deceiving opioid addicts and health care providers, who prosecutors say were duped in a plot aimed at wildly boosting prescriptions and overzealous selling. 

Federal prosecutors alleged that Richmond-based Indivior, which sells the drug known as suboxone film, used a telephone “help line” to connect opioid-addicted patients to doctors who the company knew were prescribing  the drug “in a careless and clinically unwarranted manner.”

“Indivior illegally obtained billions of dollars in revenue from suboxone film prescriptions,” federal prosecutors asserted. The company allegedly fooled health care benefit programs into believing that the drug was “safer and less susceptible to diversion and abuse than other similar drugs.”

A federal grand jury indicted the London-based company on numerous charges including conspiracy to commit wire fraud, mail fraud and healthcare fraud.

Indivior rigorously defended itself Tuesday and said the government’s conclusions are erroneous.

In a written statement, Indivior said it was “extremely disappointed” by the Justice Department’s action, calling the allegations “wholly unsupported by either the facts or the law.”

“Key allegations made by the Justice Department are contradicted by the government’s own scientific agencies, they are almost exclusively based on years-old events from before Indivior became an independent company in 2014, and they are wrong,” the company asserted. “The department has apparently decided it would rather pursue self-serving headlines on a matter of national significance than achieve an appropriate resolution, but we will contest this case vigorously and we look forward to the full facts coming out in court.”

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As early as 2009, according to court records, the company obtained reports showing that physicians were over-prescribing the addiction drug – in effect, by distributing more than allowed by law and in higher dosages than were known to be helpful.

In an email exchange, which was copied to Indivior’s medical director, one manager allegedly told another: “It takes only a short time perusing the (reports) to realize that we have some serious breaches … along with very careless and clinically unwarranted prescribing behaviors.”

One sales representative reported that a doctor was suspected of allowing “overt trafficking in provider’s parking lot.”

At a 2010 meeting, company executives allegedly learned that the 564 highest-prescribing U.S. doctors had more than 200 patients at a time on similar drugs. Those doctors, according to court documents, accounted for a third of Indivior’s business.

“Indivior continued to include physicians it knew were issuing careless, clinically unwarranted opioid prescriptions” as part of the telephone help line and other advocacy programs, prosecutors said.

In a striking 2013 exchange, a company sales representative allegedly told an Indivior manager about deep concerns for the operation of an unidentified doctor’s offices.

“It’s a liability almost that we’re even walking into these offices . . . because of how criminal it is,” the sales representative said. “Like they have a Vegas-style  cash machine sitting behind the office where they’re taking stacks of hundreds and shoving it in there while we’re trying to like, detail the nurse. It’s like the mob. It’s awful.”

Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt said that Indivior promoted its drug with a “disregard for the truth about its safety and despite known risks of diversion and abuse.”

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