The federal government saw a spike in utilization in the prescription compounding industry that led investigators to an estimated $2 billion in fraud in claims to Tricare nationally beginning in 2013 and running into last year.
Across the country compounding pharmacies were charging as much as $10,000 to $20,000 each for prescriptions and some hired marketers who used Facebook and other social media to target military families, enticing them with inclusion in research studies and telling them of creams and salves that were pain relievers, migraine headache medicines and scar reducers, said Jason Mehta, a Jacksonville-based assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida.
The cost to actually compound these creams was often only about 5 percent of the submitted cost, according to the Department of Justice. Compounding pharmacies were making in the range of 90 percent profit on each prescription.
According to the Defense Health Agency that oversees Tricare, costs for compound drugs skyrocketed from $5 million in 2004 to $514 million in 2014. Costs topped $1 billion in the first six months of 2015. Tricare went to Congress for help so the agency could make the payments, and rules were changed to make approvals of compound prescriptions more stringent. The agency was on track to lose $2 billion in 2015 alone until the controls were put in place in May, said George Jones, chief of pharmacy operations at the agency.
And now the promise of criminal prosecutions has materialized. In Arizona, a dozen doctors, pharmacy owners and marketing pros accused of a kickback scheme that prosecutors allege involved a sham medical study used to bilk up to $102 million from the publicly-funded federal health program for military family members.
Federal prosecutors said the scheme involved prescribing “compounded” drugs such as pain, scar and migraine creams to military families covered by Tricare, the federal health insurance program for active-duty and retired military and family members.
There have been at least two other federal probes alleging pharmacies paid kickbacks to doctors who ordered expensive compounded drugs for patients. One involved a California pharmacy that billed the state’s worker’s compensation program for pricey markups. In another, a Florida doctor was indicted on a charge of taking kickbacks for sending prescriptions, which billed Tricare and Medicare for creams that cost as much as $21,000 for a one-month supply, according to a federal indictment.
The Texas case centered on a Dallas-based company called CMGRX LLC, or Compound Marketing Group. Federal prosecutors allege that the marketing group arranged kickbacks to doctors who prescribed and Tricare-insured patients who purchased drugs from four compounding pharmacies.
Tricare enrollees were paid study “grants” of $250 per month for each prescription they obtained from a partner pharmacy.
“The defendants and their co-conspirators falsely represented that the study was approved by Tricare and that it was designed to evaluate the safety and efficacy of compounded drugs,” the indictment stated. “In reality, the PSI study was not approved by Tricare, was not overseen by a qualified physician, epidemiologist or other medical professional, had no control group, and was not designed to gather any useful scientific data relating to the safety or efficacy of any drug.”
The indictment alleged that Simmons also recruited an El Paso doctor, William F. Elder-Quintana, who wrote thousands of prescriptions that cost Tricare $96 million through June 2016. Elder-Quintana and other doctors were paid $60 for each pain or scar creme prescription or $30 for each vitamin prescription, the indictment said.
The indictment also alleged that marketing group employees would contact Tricare’s pharmacy-benefits consultant, Express Scripts, to find out whether certain drugs were covered. These employees then would adjust the prescriptions to maximize payments from Tricare “without any regard for the medical necessity for the prescriptions.”
The indictment accused marketing group employees of sending prefilled prescription forms to Elder-Quintana, who it alleged would sign the prescriptions after a cursory telephone interview with the patient. Other times, marketing group employees would use a stamp with Elder-Quintana’s signature to order prescriptions, the indictment stated.