60 Minutes Shines Light on Steroid Maker’s Foul Operations

A technician sends up a red flag a month before the death reports begin and he is ignored. A company salesman witnesses forgeries of drug prescriptions using cartoon character names.

These details emerged Sunday as CBS’ 60 Minutes aired the first insider look at what was going on at the New England Compounding Center (NECC) prior to the first of 48 deaths linked to contaminated steroids made by the now bankrupt facility.

Former Employees are Whistleblowers

The interviews of two former employees add to the emerging portrait of a company operating in the shadowy world of formulating pharmacies, blinded by greed and deaf to warnings that their actions risked serious harm to the very people they were entrusted to help.

As of the latest government count, the toll stands at 50 deaths and 722 cases of serious illness in 20 states. Three other states–California, Nevada and Connecticut–received the drugs, but no cases have been reported. More than 400 lawsuits and claims have been filed against the company owners and shareholders, according to NBC news. Maryland is among the states hit the hardest, with 25 cases. We’ve created this infographic of the meningitis outbreak to show the far-reaching effects of the NECC’s negligence.

NECC Warned Patients Were in Danger

The 60 Minutes story added disturbing new information to the facts that have emerged so far about what was happening at the company. Joe Connolly, an NECC lab technician, said he warned a supervisor a month before the first death was linked to NECC steroid injections that lax attention to safety was endangering patients. He said the supervisor responded with a “shrug.”

The company’s obsession with profits was described by another employee, a company salesman who spoke on condition of anonymity. Formulating pharmacies, such as NECC, are restricted to mixing medications that have been specified for a single individual. As such, they are exempted from most government oversight, unlike pharmaceutical companies that mass produce medicine.

Quick Profit Over Safety

According to the salesman, NECC saw a money-making opportunity in mass producing cheaper-priced steroid injections, and hired salesmen to make thousands of calls a day to doctors’ offices and pain clinics. Some customers, also seeing an opportunity for a quick profit, bought bulk quantities by forging prescriptions, using names like “Homer Simpson” or “John Doe,” the salesman said.

The mind picture this creates is sickening. I was heartened to hear the salesman say that some doctors’ offices refused to join in the scheme, quickly determining what NECC was doing was unethical, if not illegal.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg appeared on the program, reiterating that her agency has lacked the power to oversee formulating pharmacies, even though they produce thousands of products that are consumed or injected by patients daily. Congress is seeking to remedy this gaping hole in the nation’s drug safety net.

Representing Meningitis Victims

As an attorney who represents many meningitis victims in lawsuits against NECC – and as an average health care consumer – I’m grateful 60 Minutes was able to find and make public these new insider accounts about NECC. The TV story offers little comfort for the families of the dead and the people still suffering. But if it helps bring NECC to justice, and leads to greater oversight of specialty pharmacies, it will constitute a significant public service.

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