This may give new meaning to the notion of playing ball. Hoping to entice doctors to prescribe more meds, Novartis assembled a star-studded line up of athletes to pitch its drugs at dinners between 2006 and 2009. Among them: baseball Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Johnny Bench, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning and former New York Knicks forward Walt 'Clyde' Frazier.
As you might imagine, the athletes gave short speeches, answered questions about their careers, signed memorabilia and posed for photos. Novartis reps later brought the photos when they called on the docs. In all, the drugmaker paid $3.6 million in fees to 150 top former and current sports figures - from $8,000 to $35,000 an appearance, according to The Washington Times.
Interestingly, the events were used to promote three of six drugs that were at the center of a kickback scheme. You may recall that recently Novartis agreed to pay $422.5 million to settle civil and criminal charges for illegally promoting the meds, including Trileptal, Diovan, Zelnorm, Sandostatin, Exforge and Tekturna (back story).
"I hope someone at the company got a fat bonus, because this is one of the most clever schemes I've seen to provide gifts to doctors," Paul Thacker, an investigator for Project on Government Oversight watchdog group, who probed financial relationships between docs and drugmakers while working for the Senate Finance Committee. "If you shove a bag of cash in a doctor's pocket, he might feel like a common streetwalker, but if you give him a picture of his childhood idol, then he might feel like everyone is just being pals."
To organize the events, Novartis hired The Nelson Group. "Over the years, it got harder and harder to get physicians to come to the informational dinners," Rooney Nelson tells the paper. During that three-year period, his firm organized more than 250 events. His job was to book the athletes, physician speakers and restaurants, and pay the expenses.
More recenty, he filed a lawsuit against Novartis, seeking $538,000 in unpaid bills. The drugmaker denies owing him anything and instead claims Nelson owes "thousands if not millions of dollars" for unsubstantiated expenses. Novartis also claims he was reimbursed for honoraria to several docs and athletes that were never paid.