Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: In Florida, zombie pills for kids are an old scandal

Johnson & Johnson couldn’t have pulled this off without us.

Steven Brill, the investigative journalist and founder of Court TV and American Lawyer magazine, has written an epic 58,000-word report on how the pharmaceutical conglomerate made billions of dollars marketing “off label” uses of its blockbuster drug Risperdal.

Brill, reporting in the Huffington Post, describes how the company persuaded doctors (with gifts and lucrative “consulting fees”) and institutions to prescribe the antipsychotic medication to children and the elderly, despite FDA approval limiting treatment to adult schizophrenics.

This despite documented dangerous and startling side effects, including “an excess number of deaths” among the elderly and the bizarre development of sometimes massive female breasts by more than 5 percent of boys dosed with Risperdal.

Eventually, the Justice Department exacted criminal fines, forfeitures and civil penalties amounting to $2.5 billion from the company. (Not much considering that Johnson & Johnson has made $18 billion from Risperdal just in the U.S.)

Shocking stuff. But old news in Florida. My colleague Carol Marbin Miller was writing stories in 2001 describing how the state dosed kids in foster homes with powerful psychotropics. She described how, in 2000, Florida prescribed antipsychotic drugs including Risperdal to 5,722 foster children under age 10. Florida’s Department of Children and Families officials knew these drugs had never been approved for treating children.

Sorry, the word “treating” was a misnomer. After Marbin Miller’s stories, the state admitted that these medications weren’t used to “treat” children but rather to “calm and manage” unruly kids. In 2005, a state Senate report found that 25 percent of the children in foster homes were dosed mostly to keep them from acting like kids. State officials and contract psychiatrists, urged on by Big Pharma marketers, were converting foster care kids into easily managed zombies (and billing Medicaid).

It was so blatantly outrageous that in 2005, Florida passed legislation to curb this stuff. But a year later, we had gruesome proof that the foster care system was ignoring the new law.

Denis Maltez, 12, died at a Miami group home where he, along with other children, had been given a daily adult regimen of two different psychotropics along with a mood stabilizer and a tranquilizer. And there was the shocking suicide of Gabriel Myers, just 7, at a Margate foster home in 2010, after being drugged with antidepressants and antipsychotics never intended for any child, much less a 7-year-old.

In 2011, the Palm Beach Post found that despite these scandals the state had purchased 326,081 tablets of Risperdal and other adult antipsychotic drugs over a two-year period to manage kids in state-run juvenile lockups. The Post found that psychiatrists prescribing off-label uses of these very profitable antipsychotics had been greased by drug manufacturers with about $250,000 in gifts and speaking fees.

So drug companies milk the state for the kids’ Medicaid money, psychiatrists get their goodies and state institutions are able to warehouse zombie kids. In Florida, we’ve known for years just how the system works.