Drug company posed as cancer doctors to hook more people on its addictive painkiller

Sherri Kent with her son Michael who died from an overdose in March. Kent hopes the photo of her dying son will deter others from doing fentanyl. (Sherri Kent/Facebook)

Drug corporation Insys Therapuetics has been busted for posing as doctors and inventing cancer patients so they could push more of their new, super-concentrated, highly addictive opioid painkiller.

Insys had been handed a patent on Subsys, a sprayable form of fentanyl (a drug much stronger than heroin), in 2012, but it wasn’t selling as much as they’d hoped; the patent was specifically for treating “breakthrough pain” for cancer patients, not just anyone with serious pain issues.

So Insys pulled what might be the shadiest thing I’ve ever seen Big Pharma pull: they faked them.

A congressional report this week exposed the lengths to which Insys went to push their addictive and potentially fatal drug. Once the company had managed to get a doctor to prescribe the drug (Insys is under a whole different investigation over how it pulls that off), it’s up the patient’s insurance company to cover it. But of course, insurers hesitated to do that for a patient that, according to their records, didn’t have cancer.

So Insys set up a complex scheme that had Insys employees posing as doctor’s assistants, manipulating the insurer into believing the patient in question was indeed having serious pain from cancer.

Insys even figured out how to spoof its outgoing phone number on caller ID’s so they couldn’t be traced back to the corporation. If an insurance company needed the patient’s doctor’s number, Insys provided their own 1-800 number instead.

The company is trying to argue that this was the work of a few rogue employees. But I’m finding that tough to swallow when those employees were trained in how to masterfully make it seem like they were calling from a doctor’s office, and to make it seem like a patient had cancer, while stopping just short of saying it outright.

An Insys employee was caught on tape doing exactly that:

Fueling an Epidemic: Insys Therapeutics and the Systemic Manip…

BREAKING NEWS: Claire has just released evidence of opioid manufacturer Insys intentionally misleading call center staff to get a prescription authorization approved for one of their own drugs.Watch the video below to see how an Insys employee:⚠️ Misrepresented herself as working for a doctor’s office, and⚠️ Misled call center staff into thinking a patient was being treated for cancer (when she wasn’t’)This first round of findings from Claire’s opioid investigation show that these manipulations were likely systemic and intentional, and actions like these may have contributed to the overprescription and overuse of opioids in our country. Learn more about this critical investigation at

Posted by Senator Claire McCaskill on Wednesday, September 6, 2017


Envision: Thank you. Is it also for the breakthrough cancer pain or not?

Insys: Well, there’s no code for breakthrough cancer pain.

Envision: Yeah, and that’s fine. I typed out the description; I just want to make sure that I heard you correctly.

Insys: It’s for breakthrough pain, yeah.

Envision: Good. OK.

They’re discussing a patient named Sarah Fuller. The Insys employee successfully got the insurer to cover the drug.

Fifteen months later, Sarah was dead from a fentanyl overdose.

“I still hear that [recording] in my head,” Sarah’s mother said. “Basically, you know, they set her up to die.”

Insys doesn’t care if you live or die, as long as doctors are still helping create new fentanyl addicts to take your place. And they’re making sure that happens. Of the top ten doctors prescribing Insys’s sprayable fentanyl, not a single one isn’t getting money from the company. Not one.

And seven are either under investigation or have been found guilty of over-prescribing or fraud.

I’ve lost family to opioids, but for a lot of people it’s a faceless crisis. You see statistics: deaths from fentanyl alone have gone up by 540% in the last three years, opioids are on track to kill half a million Americans in the next ten years. Meanwhile you have lawmakers who want to ban pharmacies from distributing effective overdose reversal drugs without scripts, or stop schools from stocking up on them.

I don’t think anyone who’s seen someone in the final stages of dying after decades of opiate addiction could get behind any of that. Maybe that’s what it’ll take for people in power to give a shit about what’s happening to those of us being held hostage to these drugs, and the corporations and doctors that push them.

Written by Caitlyn McClure

Caitlyn is a rabble-rouser and writer based in Olympia, WA. She is a copywriter and logistics specialist for Tiny Pixel Collective, a web shop providing activists and artists with the tools they need to tell stories that inspire change.