NEW YORK — A doctor once honoured for his efforts in relieving patients’ chronic pain was sentenced to two years in prison Monday for accepting kickbacks in the form of speaking fees from a pharmaceutical company to prescribe large amounts of a highly addictive painkiller.
Todd Schlifstein was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Kimba M. Wood after pleading guilty to a conspiracy charge. She also ordered him to forfeit $127,100, the amount of money he received in the scheme. The prison term is half as long as what prosecutors sought.
The judge said a prison sentence was necessary because it is “what doctors in the future will take into account” before deciding whether to join a similar conspiracy.
Schlifstein was among five New York doctors charged last year with accepting bribes in the form of speaking fees to prescribe millions of dollars’ worth of a fentanyl-based spray. Three others have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing while another is awaiting trial.
Prosecutors say the spray made by the Arizona company Insys Therapeutics Inc. is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. A message was left with Insys seeking comment.
The New York state Assembly in 2016 honoured Schlifstein as a founding director of the New York State Pain Society.
Before the sentence was announced, Schlifstein choked up as he acknowledged “a terrible mistake.”
“I’ll be embarrassed for the rest of my life,” he said, pausing briefly as emotions overtook him. “It’s been devastating on my life in every way possible. Career’s done. Financially destroyed.”
He said he agreed to enter the company’s “Speakers Bureau” at about the same time as his judgment suffered when his brother died suddenly.
Prosecutors say the doctors, four men and a woman, collected tens of thousands of dollars from the company over a four-year stretch beginning in August 2012.
Prosecutors said the “Speakers Bureau” was created purportedly to educate other practitioners about the fentanyl spray, but it was used instead to induce doctors to prescribe large volumes of the spray by paying them speaker program fees.
They said Schlifstein prescribed enough of the fentanyl-based drug, Subsys, to account for more than $2 million in net sales for Insys. The drug is intended to benefit cancer patients who become tolerant of opioids.
They said that although speakers were supposed to conduct slide presentations, the events often became mostly social affairs with no educational presentation about the spray.
In court papers, prosecutors said Schlifstein was seeking to become an Insys speaker in October 2013 when he met with one of the company’s executives at a dinner that was supposed to be a fellow doctor’s speaker program.
Prosecutors said the dinner, which didn’t include any educational presentation, was followed by a trip by the group to a strip club Schlifstein frequented where everyone rang up a $4,100 bill at the pharmaceutical company’s expense for drinks, a private room and lap dances.