LI man's report leads to federal suit against Novartis

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The Justice Department on Friday accused Novartis Pharmaceuticals of gouging the government and public on drug costs through a $65 million doctor-kickback scheme that was brought to light in a lawsuit by a Long Island man.

The whistle-blower in the case was identified as Oswald Bilotta, who lawyers said became familiar with a program to influence doctors by wining and dining them at fancy restaurants and paying "honoraria," while he worked as a Novartis sales rep and lived in Suffolk County.

The lawsuit, filed under the False Claims Act in federal court in Manhattan, claims that so-called speaker programs -- dinners at eateries like Nobu and Smith & Wollensky, and $1,000 honoraria for praising a drug to a few other guests at the dinner -- were illegal inducements and rewards for doctors.Bilotta, listed in voter records as a former resident of Miller Place, stands to get between 15 percent and 30 percent of any government recovery of overpayments by Medicare and Medicaid. He now lives in North Carolina and did not return a call, but one of his attorneys said he pressed the case for more than money.

"He was offended by what he had seen and by the culture," said John Mininno, a Collingswood, N.J., lawyer. "He wanted to change the culture and get himself out of the culture. Doctors should make decisions based on what's best for the patient, not what's best for their pocketbooks."

Novartis, in a statement, denied wrongdoing and said it would fight the government lawsuit.

The company called physician speaker programs "an accepted and customary practice in the industry," and said it did not break rules designed to govern how they are managed.

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