It’s true that the drug industry was hard hit last year with some pretty hefty fines for the illegal off-label promotion of drugs — $1.4 billion against Eli Lilly for its off-label promotion of Zyprexa and $2.3 billion against Pfizer for doing the same with several drugs. But such fines, many say, are still considered the cost of doing business in an industry that raked in close to $300 billion in U.S. drug sales in 2008 (and more in 2009), according to IMS Health Reports.

Now, Alaska attorney Jim Gottstein has proposed a different and potentially more effective approach toward curbing the systemic over-drugging of economically disadvantaged youngsters in this country, a sad reality which I’ve written about here and here. According to one recent study, children covered by Medicaid are given anti-psychotics such as Zyprexa and Seroquel (which have serious side effects) four times as often as children whose parents have private insurance. These drugs are often prescribed as chemical straitjackets to control children whose parents or foster families are unable to give them the attention and parenting they need. That was certainly the case for four-year-old Rebecca Riley, who died from an overdose of psychoactive drugs prescribed by a psychiatrist at Tufts Medical Center, Kayoko Kifuji.

Gottstein has launched an initiative to sue doctors like Kifuji who blithely prescribe potent drugs that are not approved for use in children. These lawsuits, filed under a federal Qui Tam complaint, would target not only the individual doctors but the hospitals and clinics that employ them and the pharmacies that fill their prescriptions and submit them to Medicaid for reimbursement. It is Gottstein’s contention that these prescriptions constitute Medicaid fraud since they are written for uses that are not medically accepted (i.e. off-label). There is legal precedent for this kind of argument. Indeed, the Department of Justice’s news release announcing its $2.3 billion settlement with Pfizer says that the drug giant caused false claims to be submitted to government health care programs for uses that were not medically accepted indications. So if the feds can succeed with this kind of argument, why not individual claimants?

Gottstein is planning to discuss his medicaid fraud initiative in a lecture webinar on Feb. 24, sponsored by the International Center for the Study of Psychiatry and Psychology. So if you know of a disadvantaged child who was slapped on drugs he or she didn’t need, you might want to listen in.

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