The maker of a little red pill intended to treat a rare condition is raking in hundreds of millions of dollars a year as it aggressively targets frail and elderly nursing home residents for whom the drug may be unnecessary or even unsafe, a CNN investigation has found.
And much of the money is coming straight from the federal government.
The pill, called Nuedexta, is approved to treat a disorder marked by sudden and uncontrollable laughing or crying -- known as pseudobulbar affect, or PBA. This condition afflicts less than 1% of all Americans, based on a calculation using the drugmaker's own figures, and it is most commonly associated with people who have multiple sclerosis (MS) or ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
Nuedexta's financial success, however, is being propelled by a sales force focused on expanding the drug's use among elderly patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer's disease, and high-volume prescribing and advocacy efforts by doctors receiving payments from the company, CNN found.
Since 2012, more than half of all Nuedexta pills have gone to long-term care facilities. The number of pills rose to roughly 14 million in 2016, a jump of nearly 400% in just four years, according to data obtained from QuintilesIMS, which tracks pharmaceutical sales. Total sales of Nuedexta reached almost $300 million that year.
Nuedexta is being increasingly prescribed in nursing homes even though drugmaker Avanir Pharmaceuticals acknowledges in prescribing information that the drug has not been extensively studied in elderly patients -- prompting critics to liken its use to an uncontrolled experiment. The one study the company conducted solely on patients with Alzheimer's (a type of dementia) had 194 subjects and found that those on Nuedexta experienced falls at more than twice the rate as those on a placebo.
Avanir declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article. In an emailed statement, the company said PBA is often "misunderstood" and that the condition can affect people with dementia and other neurological disorders, which are common among residents in long-term care facilities. A company website states PBA can afflict up to roughly 40% of dementia patients -- a figure that is based on an Avanir-funded survey and was repeatedly disputed by medical experts interviewed by CNN, including some of those paid by Avanir.
Nuedexta is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat anyone with PBA, including those with a variety of neurological conditions such as dementia. But geriatric physicians, dementia researchers and other medical experts told CNN that PBA is extremely rare in dementia patients; several said it affects 5% or less. And state regulators have found doctors inappropriately diagnosing nursing home residents with PBA to justify using Nuedexta to treat patients whose confusion, agitation and unruly behavior make them difficult to manage.
"There has to be a diagnosis for every drug prescribed, and that diagnosis has to be real ... it cannot be simply made up by a doctor," said Kathryn Locatell, a geriatric physician who helps the California Department of Justice investigate cases of elder abuse in nursing homes. "There is little to no medical literature to support the drug's use in nursing home residents (with dementia) -- the population apparently being targeted."
CNN identified dozens of cases across the country since 2013 in which state nursing home inspectors questioned the use of Nuedexta.
In a Los Angeles nursing home last year, regulators found that more than a quarter of its residents -- 46 of 162 -- had been placed on Nuedexta, noting that a facility psychiatrist had given a talk about the drug to employees. This psychiatrist was a paid speaker for Avanir.
At another facility in 2015, also in Southern California, an employee admitted to inspectors that a resident had been given a diagnosis of PBA to "somehow justify the use" of Nuedexta, even though its intended purpose was to control the resident's "mood disturbances" and yelling out.
And an Ohio doctor paid by Avanir has come under government investigation for allegedly receiving kickbacks for prescribing the drug and fraudulently diagnosing patients with PBA in order to secure Medicare coverage -- though the doctor has denied any wrongdoing.
The federal government foots the bill for a big portion of the money being spent on Nuedexta in the form of Medicare Part D prescription drug funding, for people 65 and over and the disabled. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, this Medicare program spent $138 million on Nuedexta -- up more than 400% from just three years earlier.
Medicare is supposed to pay for drug uses that have been proven safe and effective for the population they are intended to treat or that have been otherwise supported by a specific collection of medical research. Nuedexta is currently only approved by the FDA for patients who have PBA. So experts say that Medicare coverage of the drug, which has been crucial to its financial success, relies on the diagnosis of this single condition. So-called "off-label" prescribing, in which doctors use the drug to treat patients who have not been diagnosed with PBA, would typically not be covered.
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) declined to comment on the growing use of Nuedexta in nursing homes.
Thousands of the doctors prescribing Nuedexta have received money, or at least a meal, from its maker -- a legal but controversial practice in the industry. Between 2013 and 2016, Avanir and its parent company, Otsuka, paid doctors nearly $14 million for Nuedexta-related consulting, promotional speaking and other services, according to government data. The companies also spent $4.6 million on travel and dining costs, both for speakers and for doctors being targeted by salespeople.
A CNN analysis also found that nearly half the Nuedexta claims filed with Medicare in 2015 came from doctors who had received money or other perks from the company (ranging from a few dollars' worth of food or drink to hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct payments).
Pharmaceutical companies are allowed to pay a doctor to promote a drug to colleagues and other medical professionals. It is illegal, however, for doctors to prescribe the drug in exchange for kickback payments from a manufacturer. (Click to Continue)
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The little red pill being pushed on the elderly