A 59-year-old Sarasota doctor will serve more than three years in federal prison for accepting bribes to prescribe a spray containing the highly addictive and sometime deadly opioid fentanyl.
U.S. District Judge William H. Jung sentenced Dr. Steven Chun to 42 months and ordered him to forfeit $278,900. Chun was also fined $100,000 and will have to serve three years of probation when he is released according to a sentencing document.
Chun was convicted in May along with Tampa drug company representative Daniel Tondre, 52, for soliciting and accepting kickbacks and bribes in return for writing prescriptions for the pain killer Subsys, in many cases when it was not medically necessary.
Tondre was also convicted on two counts of identification fraud. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 15.
According to the the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Middle District, Chun owned and ran a Sarasota pain management practice where he prescribed “a large volume of Subsys.” Tondre worked as a sales rep for Insys Therapeutics, the company that manufactured and sold Subsys. He worked in Chun’s territory.
The bribes were paid in the form of fees for appearing at “sham” speaking events organized by Tondre and Insys which were often only attended by Chun’s family, friends and repeat attendees. Signatures for attendees were falsified or forged, prosecutors say.
Chun was paid between $2,400 and $3,000 for each event and in exchange Chun wrote more prescriptions at high dosages for Subsys.
Fentanyl, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, is a “synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times stronger than morphine.” It was developed to treat cancer patients but has become popular with opioid users and sometimes mixed with heroin to increase potency. Subsys, prosecutors say, is “an expensive form of liquid fentanyl designed to be applied under the tongue (sublingual spray), allowing it to rapidly enter the bloodstream to help relieve break-through pain in certain cancer patients.”
In all, Chun was paid more than $278,000 in kickbacks, and Tondre earned more than $737,000 in salary and sales commissions in just under three years.
Chun also worked as a consultant to a local pharmacy where he sent patients to fill Subsys and other prescriptions. And Insys hired his then-girlfriend to work as a liaison to simplify the approval of insurance forms for Subsys, including claims for Medicare patients, officials contended. Medicare Part D paid more than $4.5 million for Subsys prescriptions written by Chun.
The scheme was not unknown to Insys’ officials.
According to the indictment, an Insys executive emailed Tondre on March 12, 2013 asking “where is Dr. Chun, we cannot go a single day without a prescription from Dr. Chun. I do not want to hear any excuses, we pay good money here. We need 1 a day from Chun.”
Nor was the scheme unique to Chun and Tondre.
John Kapoor, the company’s founder, was sentenced to more than five years in prison in 2020 “for orchestrating a scheme to bribe practitioners” to get them to prescribe Subsys. Four other executives were also convicted at that time for racketeering conspiracy.
According to the justice department, the First Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the convictions.
The story of Insys’s practices is the subject of a book by journalist Evan Hughes, “The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup.”