U.S. Sues Novartis Again, Accusing It of Kickbacks

The United States government  announced its second civil fraud lawsuit against the Swiss drug maker Novartis in four days, accusing a unit of the company of paying multimillion-dollar kickbacks to doctors in exchange for prescribing its drugs.

The authorities said that for a decade, the company lavished healthy speaking fees and “opulent” meals, including a nearly $10,000 dinner for three at the restaurant Nobu, to induce doctors to prescribe its drugs.

They said this led to the Medicare and Medicaid programs’ paying millions of dollars in reimbursements based on kickback-tainted claims for medication like the hypertension drugs Lotrel and Valturna and the diabetes drug Starlix.

The charges are described in a whistle-blower lawsuit first filed against Novartis Pharmaceuticals by a former sales representative in January 2011 and which the federal government has now joined.

“Novartis corrupted the prescription drug dispensing process,” Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said in a statement. “For its investment, Novartis reaped dramatically increased profits on these drugs, and Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health care programs were left holding the bag.”

The government accused Novartis of inducing pharmacies to switch thousands of kidney transplant patients to its immunosuppressant drug Myfortic in exchange for kickbacks disguised as rebates and discounts.

Julie Masow, a Novartis spokeswoman, said the company disputed the claims in both lawsuits and would defend itself. Ms. Masow said speaker programs were “promotional programs” meant to inform physicians how to use the company’s medicines.

Novartis “invests significant time and resources to help ensure these programs are conducted in an ethical and responsible manner,” she said.