Blog post by Marica Micallef
In the article below, the Daily Telegraph UK reported on 27 January that high NHS officials took money hence were bribed, so to push the agenda of the pharmaceutical industries. One wonders how and why our investigative journalists do not carry out any research to find whether such a situation exists in Malta or not. At least, one politician is questioning in court the operations of Steward Health. But given that the Maltese health system is normally a carbon copy of the British one, and our health care system was built on the British NHS, it is interesting if journalists can find out whether there are officials in the local health sector who had been bribed during Covid19 pandemic to promote particular drugs and convince patients to change their medications.
NHS officials took £70,000 drug company bribes, then ‘switched’ patients’ medication, court told
Paul Jerram and Dr David Turner are accused of breaching their positions and acting as ‘paid influencers’ for pharmaceutical companiesByInvestigations team27 January 2022 • 9:28pm
NHS officials who accepted £70,000 in bribes to promote prescription drugs visited GP surgeries to “switch” patients’ medication, a court heard on Thursday.
Paul Jerram and Dr David Turner have been accused of arriving at surgeries claiming to be on official business and changing a patient’s medication – a practice known as “switching”.
James Hines QC prosecuting, told a trial at Southampton Crown Court that the two men had used their positions with the medicine management team of Isle of Wight Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and that if the doctors at the surgeries had known it was “not an official visit, they would have not allowed them to [make the changes]”.
“They were effectively using their position with the NHS to farm out the services of the medicine management team and they received money to do so,” the court was told.
“Switching” is a function carried out only by doctors or NHS professionals which relates to swapping the medication patients at a surgery are prescribed for a more cost-effective drug.
It is “fundamental” switches are only carried out by trusted NHS officials, Mr Hines QC said, but Mr Jerram and Dr Turner breached their positions to promote the drugs they were paid to do so.
The jury was told how the two men accepted close to £70,000 in bribes to promote prescription drugs to doctors and were compared to referees in the pocket of a football team.
Mr Jerram and Dr Turner allegedly acted as “paid influencers” for pharmaceutical companies by recommending medicines to GPs in exchange for “secret” payments.
Mr Jerram, of Shanklin, Isle of Wight, is charged with six counts of bribery and one count of corruption while Dr Turner, of Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, is charged with five counts of bribery.
The defendants – along with two others also on trial – deny the charges.
The case arose after an undercover investigation by the Telegraph in 2015, which exposed how senior NHS were being paid thousands of pounds and taken on expensive trips by drug companies lobbying to get their products used by the health service.
Mr Jerram, who was the head of medicines management at the Isle of Wight Clinical Commissioning Group at the time of the investigation, told undercover reporters that he had recently attended a meeting in Germany, which took place at “one of the top 10 hotels in the world” and each delegate was paid £500 a day to attend, he claimed.
Following the disclosure, the NHS Counter Fraud Authority launched an investigation, leading to the current prosecution.
In court, prosecutor Mr Hines QC said that the men on trial had “used their expertise, their inside knowledge, their influence, and their familiarity with NHS systems to further their own, private interests”.
‘Vehicle for bribery’
“They achieved this in a number of different ways, but the object was always the same: to line their own pockets. They took improper payments time and time again,” he said. “These defendants were each corrupt. They placed their own gain ahead of carrying out their important public functions properly.”
The court heard Mr Jerram, 69, was head of medicine management and lead pharmacist at the Isle of Wight CCG from 2004 and possessed ‘great influence’ there.
Dr Turner, 66, was a GP who worked as a consultant to the IoW CCG. He also chaired a care prescription committee that advised the CCG and comprised specialist nurses and doctors.
Together, the men ran a company and used the company as a ‘vehicle for bribery’, prosecutor Mr Hines QC said.
In total, they allegedly received or agreed to receive £68,760 in ‘bungs’ from January 2008 to July 2015.
Jurors were told the NHS officials were paid by businessman Noel Staunton, whose consultancy firm represented pharmaceutical companies.
As a result of their ‘corrupt’ seven-year scheme, the court heard the ‘integrity’ of NHS doctors making honest recommendations about prescription drugs was breached and medicines were improperly pushed to GP surgeries and advisory boards.
Health service pharmacist Cathal Daly – who is also accused of accepting ‘backhanders’ – is also part of the group now on trial.
Mr Staunton, 60, was ‘very handsomely paid’ by his pharmaceutical company clients through his company 3i Consultancy and was long-term friends with Mr Jerram.
Mr Staunton, who received tens of thousands of pounds from drug-makers, is accused of paying the pair to promote drugs manufactured by his clients, such as cholesterol drugs and ointments.
Mr Staunton repeatedly contacted pharmaceutical companies to promise he could get their drugs promoted on ScriptSwitch in what was an “extremely lucrative” scheme for him.
In one instance, Mr Staunton told Genus Pharmaceuticals that he would “secure a flag on ScriptSwitch highlighting (hydration cream) Cetraben as the most cost-effective emollient”.
Other drugs were improperly endorsed on ScriptSwitch’s newsletter, the court heard.
Elsewhere, the defendants also got other NHS healthcare organisations to sign rebate deals which benefitted them financially.
Mr Hines QC said the defendants “effectively allowed pharma companies to buy the services of NHS staff”.
The drugs companies are not accused of any wrongdoing, Mr Hines QC said.
Jurors heard that Mr Jerram asked, “sorry to be cheeky, is there a fee?” when Mr Staunton asked him to promote a drug.
The businessman had asked the official to highlight a calcium tablet after successfully promoting another drug.
Mr Hines QC said the response was “rather telling” and that Mr Jerram “clearly indicates his particular motivation”.
After Mr Staunton replied “yes of course”, Mr Jerram suggested he would prioritise working on the drug promotion if Mr Staunton increased his bribe, the court heard.
“If you have considered fees please advise – always stimulates faster response”, Mr Jerram said.
Mr Staunton was paid over £25,000 for some deals with his clients and Mr Jerram and Dr Turner would get smaller “backhanders”, the court heard.
He said the effectiveness and cost of the drugs are not relevant, but that the defendants abused the “integrity” of doctors honestly advising each other over drugs.
Mr Hines QC said: “The prosecution case is that it is completely improper for an NHS professional secretly to promote a particular drug within the NHS to his fellow NHS healthcare professionals when he is in effect in the position of a paid influencer for the pharma company that manufactures that drug.
“That is what was happening on the Isle of Wight for some years.
“If it is your job within the NHS to review medication and drugs, and make recommendations or suggestions for alternative medicines to fellow NHS healthcare professionals, you are acting improperly if you secretly accept money from pharma companies, either directly or indirectly, to promote a particular medicine.
“And it’s no answer to say ‘but the drug is cheaper or better’. That doesn’t permit or allow you to accept a bung, a bribe, a backhander – whatever you call it.
“To use the old word, that’s corrupt.”
Mr Staunton, of Seaview on the Isle of Wight, faces a corruption charge relating to a payment of £2,000 and a bribery charge relating to paying a £4,200 fee.
Mr Daly, 51, of Norwich, Norfolk, faces a bribery charge relating to receiving £1,000. As clinical lead for primary care and prescribing at South Norfolk CCG, Mr Daly was said to have helped secure a dodgy rebate deal.
The trial continues.