A Sarasota-area doctor has been found guilty of accepting bribes to prescribe a spray containing the highly addictive, and sometimes fatal, opioid fentanyl.
Dr. Steven Chun, 59, was convicted, along with a drug company representative from Tampa, for soliciting and accepting kickbacks and bribes in return for writing prescriptions for the pain killer Subsys, often when not medically necessary.
Federal prosecutors, in a statement, call the drug “an expensive form of liquid fentanyl designed to be applied under the tongue (sublingual spray), allowing it to rapidly enter the bloodstream.”
Chun and Daniel Tondre, 52, face five years in federal prison for conspiracy and up to 10 years for each kickback violation. Tondre, also convicted on two counts of identification fraud, could get an additional five years for each of those charges.
According to the statement from 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, who worked as a sales rep for Insys Therapeutics, the company that manufactured and sold Subsys, worked in Chun’s territory.
The bribes were paid for appearing at sham speaking events organized by Tondre and Insys.
Chun was paid between $2,400 and $3,000 for each event, which family, friends and repeat attendees came to, sometimes providing false or forged signatures, authorities contended. In exchange, Chun just wrote more prescriptions at high dosages.
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.
The doctor was also employed as a consultant by a local pharmacy, where he sent patients to fill Subsys and other prescriptions.
Insys also hired his then-girlfriend to work as a liaison to simplify the approval of insurance forms for Subsys, including claims for Medicare patients, officials alleged. Medicare Part D paid more than $4.5 million for Subsys prescriptions written by Chun.
For their efforts, Chun, according to evidence at the 10-day trial, was paid more than $278,000 in kickbacks, and Tondre earned more than $737,000 in salary and sales commissions.
Insys’ practice of paying bribes and kickbacks was not unique to Sarasota.
The company’s founder, John Kapoor, 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.”