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Does the Ban on Off-Label Promotion Bar On-Label Promotion?: The Case of Call Plans

Posted Nov 06 2011 8:22pm

kate-greenwood_high-res-2011 As predicted , in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Sorrell v. IMS Health pharmaceutical companies have raised First Amendment challenges to the ban on off-label promotion on a number of fronts.  Most recently, Par Pharmaceutical sued to invalidate the ban to the extent that it “criminalize[s] Par’s truthful and non-misleading speech to healthcare professionals concerning the FDA-approved use of its FDA-approved prescription drug.”  How is it that the ban on off-label promotion could be interpreted to bar the on-label promotion in which Par wishes to engage?  At the heart of Par’s dispute with the government are the “call plans” that pharmaceutical companies develop using the prescriber-specific prescription data at issue in .

Call plans set forth which physicians pharmaceutical sales representatives should visit and how often.  In an article in the current issue of Next Generation Pharmaceutical magazine, Matthew Linkewich and Jay Margolis of IMS Health explain that a “properly conceived and configured … call plan directs reps to those physicians whose practice characteristics, constellation of prescribing behaviors and attitudes are conducive to supporting the brand goals.”  Because call plans embody “brand goals,” the government has focused on them as evidencing companies’ intent to engage in off-label promotion.

For example, in a December 15, 2010 press release announcing a $214.5 million settlement with Elan Corporation, the Department of Justice highlighted the fact that Elan’s “off-label marketing efforts” for its anti-epilepsy drug Zonegran “targeted non-epilepsy prescribers.”   A January 28, 2011 press release announcing the formal sentencing of Novartis in a case involving off-label promotion of its anti-epilepsy drug, Trileptal, similarly noted that the company “decided to market and promote Trileptal as a treatment for [two off-label indications, bipolar disease and neuropathic disease] and directed its sales force to visit doctors who would not normally prescribe Trileptal due to the nature of their practice.” Novartis’ plea agreement explains that while epilepsy is treated by epileptologists and neurologists, the company’s call plan included psychiatrists and pain doctors.

The corporate integrity agreement that Novartis entered into as part of the settlement of the Trileptal-related claims against it provides for independent review of “the bases upon which [health care providers] and [health care institutions] belonging to specified medical specialties are included in, or excluded from, the Call Plans based on, among other factors, expected utilization of Government Reimbursed Products for FDA-approved uses or non-FDA-approved uses[.]“  The corporate integrity agreement requires a similar review of the company’s sampling strategy and goes so far as to bar the company from delivering samples to health care providers identified by the company as “belong[ing] to a specialty group that is unlikely to prescribe” the sampled product on-label.

Currently, Par Pharmaceutical’s call plan for its appetite stimulant Megace, which is FDA-approved for the treatment of AIDS-related wasting , does not include oncology practices or long-term care facilities.  With the help of an outside consultant, Par determined that physicians in those settings “reasonably may encounter patients suffering from AIDS-related wasting, and thus may have occasion to prescribe [Megace] for its on-label use,” but all agree that they would be much more likely to prescribe the drug off-label to treat wasting in cancer and geriatric patients.  In the concluding paragraphs of Par’s complaint, it explains that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, which is investigating the company’s marketing practices, has informed the company that before it promotes a drug for its on-label use to doctors who prescribe the drug off-label it must “confirm that there are presently a sufficient number of patients being treated for whom the drug could be prescribed on-label.”

As Par points out, the government has offered no guidance regarding the number of on-label patients that a doctor must treat before he or she can be included in a company’s call plan.  On the one hand, this is to be expected because the call plan is only one factor that the government considers in determining a company’s intent.  On the other hand, it leaves companies like Par without a clear course to follow and, after Sorrell, likely to sue.

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