AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Late this afternoon, a judge in Boston sentenced John Kapoor, the onetime billionaire and drug company executive, to 5 1/2 years in prison. The 76-year-old and several other executives at the company he founded, Insys Therapeutics, were convicted of orchestrating a nationwide opioid bribery scheme. Their trial was the first successful prosecution of top pharmaceutical executives linked to the opioid crisis.
Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WGBH has been following this months-long trial. She joins us now.
GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: Hi there.
CHANG: So what exactly was Insys convicted of doing - or its executives?
EMANUEL: So Insys developed an opioid painkiller called SUBSYS. It's fentanyl-based, and it's very strong. And then they marketed it aggressively - so aggressively that they paid doctors to prescribe this medication, often in very high doses and to people who didn't need it. Then Insys set up a call center where employees lied to insurance companies to make sure the drug, which is really expensive, would be covered.
And federal prosecutors painted a picture of this company and the executives as really driven by profit and greed. For example, the prosecutors showed a music video of sales reps bragging about getting patients hooked on the highest dose of their opioid. Take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Rapping) I got new patients, and I got a lot of them. If you want to be great, listen to my voice. You can be great, but it's your choice.
CHANG: Those were sales reps? All right. So these executives were charged criminally with racketeering. What do you think is the significance of this being pursued as a racketeering case?
EMANUEL: Exactly. This charge is usually used against mob bosses and drug lords. So by charging corporate executives with racketeering, the federal government was saying that this pharmaceutical company resembled an organized crime operation.
EMANUEL: This trial was seen as a statement by the government that they are going after pharmaceutical companies and, particularly, pharmaceutical executives for their role in the opioid crisis.
CHANG: And they got convictions out of this case. So how much of a success was this, would you say?
EMANUEL: Exactly. Initially, they got a conviction. It seemed like it was a success. The jury returned a guilty verdict for the founder and all the other high-ranking executives who - his co-defendants. But the judge chose to overturn a part of that verdict, suggesting the government might have overreached somewhat. Yet part of the guilty verdict still stood, and that's why you have Kapoor's sentencing today. And at the end of the day, this is a very successful executive now going to prison.
I should say that the 5 1/2 years he got is a lot less than the federal prosecutors wanted. They wanted 15 years. But it's still more than the one year that defense attorneys recommended. And I should mention his lawyers say they'll appeal. Now, the experts I've spoken to say they expect there will be more cases like this. They called this case just the tip of the iceberg and a template for future trials.
CHANG: OK. So if we can expect more cases like this, to what extent might we see changes in the pharmaceutical industry?
EMANUEL: I think you will see some changes but not tons of changes. So this was a closely watched trial. You - it was seen as a cautionary tale for other companies, both because of the prison time and because Insys as a company has really been struggling. They've declared bankruptcy and entered a multi-million dollar - a $225 million settlement with the government. But here's the caveat. Many of the aggressive marketing techniques that contributed to overuse and addiction in the opioid epidemic are technically legal.
CHANG: That's Gabrielle Emanuel of member station WGBH.
EMANUEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.