FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

September 23, 2014

Billy the Kid Begins and the GSK China Verdict

Billy the KidAccording to This Day in History, 139 years ago today, Billy the Kid was arrested for the first time, for theft. Billy the Kid was believed to have been born in New York City and was later taken out west by his mother. He was arrested on September 23, 1875 when he was found in possession of clothing and firearms that had been stolen from a Chinese laundry owner. Two days after he was placed in jail, the teenager escaped up the jailhouse chimney. From that point on Billy the Kid was a fugitive. He later broke out of jail and roamed the American West, eventually earning a reputation as an outlaw and murderer, allegedly committing 21 murders.

I thought about the start of Billy the Kid’s outlaw career and more particularly how it ended as I was thinking through some of the issues surrounding the GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) bribery conviction in China last week. For instance, did GSK obtain a negotiated settlement with the Chinese government when it was announced that the company pled guilty to bribery and corruption and was fined almost $500MM by a Chinese court? Further, what lessons can be drawn from the GSK matter for companies operating in China and the compliance practitioner going forward? Today, I want to explore the lessons that a company might be able to draw from the GSK matter.

I think the first lesson to draw is that the Chinese government will focus more on companies than on individuals. Andrew Ward, Patti Waldmeir and Caroline Binham, writing in a Financial Times (FT) article, entitled “Pain from graft scandal likely to linger”, quoted Mak Yuen Teen, a corporate governance expert at the National University of Singapore for the following, “By handing suspended sentences rather than jail terms to Mark Reilly, GSK’s former head of China, and four of his top lieutenants, the court in Hunan province was holding the company more accountable than the individuals.”

However other commentators said, “GSK got off more lightly than expected for bribing doctors to prescribe its drugs.” The article went on to note, “People close to the situation denied that the outcome amounted to a negotiated settlement. But Bing Shaowen, a Chinese pharmaceuticals analyst, said it was likely that GSK made commitments on research and development investment and drug pricing to avoid more draconian treatment. A further FT article by Andrew Ward, Patti Waldmeir and Caroline Binham, entitled “GSK closes a chapter with £300m fine but story likely to run on”, cited Dan Roules, an anti-corruption expert at the Shanghai firm Squire Sanders, who said that he had expected the penalty to be harsher. Roules was quoted as saying “The fact that GSK co-operated with the authorities would have made a difference.” The article went on to say that Roules “pointed to GSK’s statement on Friday pledging to become “a model for reform in China’s healthcare industry” by “supporting China’s scientific development” and increasing access to its products “through pricing flexibility”.”

What about reputational damage leading to a drop in the value of stock? The market had an interesting take on the GSK conviction, it yawned. Moreover, as noted in the FT Lex Column “The stock market was never bothered. The shares moved little when the investigation, and then the fine, were disclosed.” Why did the market have such a reaction? The Lex Column said that one of the reasons might be that the “China may be too small to matter much for now” to the company.

Another lesson is one that Matt Kelly, editor of Compliance Week, wrote about in the context of the ongoing National Football League (NFL) scandal, in an article entitled “The NFL’s True Problem: Misplaced Priorities Trumping Ethics & Compliance”, when he said that a company must align its “core values with its core priorities.” GSK moved towards doing that throughout the last year, during the investigation into the bribery and corruption scandal in China. Although the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of GSK, Sir Andrew Witty, has been a champion for ethical reform in both the company and greater pharmaceutical industry, the FT reporters noted that the China corruption scandal, coupled with “smaller-scale corruption allegations in the Middle East and Poland, has raised fresh questions about ethical standards and compliance.” If Witty wants to move GSK forward, he must strive to align the company’s business priorities with his (and the company’s) stated ethical values.

Which brings us to some of the successes that GSK has created in the wake of the bribery and corruption scandal. These successes are instructive for the compliance practitioner because they present concrete steps that the compliance practitioner can do to help facilitate such change. As reported by Katie Thomas, in a New York Times (NYT) article entitled “Glaxo to Stop Paying Doctors To Boost Drugs”, one change that GSK has instituted is that it will no longer pay doctors to promote its products and will stop tying compensation of sales representatives to the number of prescriptions doctors write, which were two common pharmaceutical sales practices that have been criticized as troublesome conflicts of interest. While this practice has gone on for many, many years it had been prohibited in the United States through a pharmaceutical industry-imposed ethics code but is still used in other countries outside the US.

In addition to this ban on paying doctors to speak favorably about its products at conferences, GSK will also change its compensation structure so that it will no longer compensate sales representatives based on the number of prescriptions that physicians write, a standard practice that some have said pushed pharmaceutical sales officials to inappropriately promote drugs to doctors. Now GSK pays its sales representatives based on their technical knowledge, the quality of service they provided to clients to improve patient care, and the company’s business performance.

In addition to the obvious conflict of interest, which apparently is an industry wide conflict because multiple companies have engaged in these tactics, there is also clearly the opportunity for abuse leading to allegations of illegal bribery and corruption. Indeed one of the key bribery schemes alleged to have been used by GSK in China was to pay doctors, hospital administrators and other government officials, bonuses based upon the amount of GSK pharmaceutical products, which they may have prescribed to patients. But with this new program in place, perhaps GSK may have “removed the incentive to do anything inappropriate.”

This new compensation and marketing program by GSK demonstrates that companies can make substantive changes in compensation, which promote not only better compliance but also promote better business relationships. A company spokesman interviewed the NYT piece noted that the changes GSK will make abroad had already been made in the US and because of these changes, “the experience in the United states had been positive and had improved relationships with doctors and medical institutions.”

In addition to these changes in compensation and marketing, Ward/Waldmeir/Binham, reported that GSK announced it would strive to be “a model for reform in China’s healthcare industry” by “supporting China’s scientific development” and increasing access to its products “through pricing flexibility”. They further stated “Rival companies will now be watching nervously to see whether more enforcement action takes place in a sector where inducements for prescribing drugs have long been an important source of income for poorly paid Chinese medics,” which is probably not going to be a return the wild west of bribery and corruption that occurred over the past few years in China. Bing Shaowen was quoted as saying that the GSK matter “is a very historic case for the Chinese pharmaceutical industry. It means that strict compliance will become the routine and the previous drug marketing and sales methods must be abolished.”

Whatever you might think of the GSK result, the company certainly ended its legal journey better in China than Billy the Kid did in New Mexico. But the company still faces real work to rebuild its reputation in China. Moreover, it still faces legal scrutiny for its conduct in the UK under the Bribery Act and the US under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Acct (FCPA). So stay tuned…

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2014

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