WASHINGTON - -A landmark $2.3 billion health care fraud settlement announced Wednesday involving Pfizer Inc. has put the pharmaceutical industry on notice that its widespread and potentially criminal behavior in promoting drugs for unauthorized uses won't be tolerated by the Obama administration, government officials and legal experts said.
But, they added, some companies will continue to risk prosecution for such questionable practices because the fines and penalties pale in comparison to the extraordinary profits that are being made on the widespread practice of marketing drugs for "off-label" uses that have not been approved by the federal government.
The Justice Department described the settlement as the largest in its history, and said that Pfizer and its subsidiary Pharmacia & Upjohn Company Inc. have agreed to pay the unprecedented amount of civil and criminal penalties in order to end a series of investigations into their allegedly fraudulent marketing practices and other potentially illegal acts.
The settlement reflects a renewed emphasis by the Obama administration on holding health care corporations accountable for their activities, especially in trying to market drugs for uses that haven't been approved, Justice Department officials and legal experts said.
Authorities called Pfizer a repeat offender, noting it is the company's fourth such settlement of government charges in the last decade. The allegations surround the marketing of 13 different drugs, including Viagra, Zoloft and Lipitor.
As part of its illegal marketing, Pfizer invited doctors to consultant meetings at resort locations, paying their expenses and providing perks, prosecutors said.
Primarily, the new settlement resolves criminal and civil liability arising from Pfizer's illegal promotion of certain products, including the anti-inflammatory drug Bextra, according to Justice Department documents and officials.
In another deal, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler announced that Pfizer will pay a $33 million consumer protection settlement to 43 states for marketing the antipsychotic drug Geodon for off-label uses.
Maryland will receive about $750,000, Gansler's office said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz F. Kay and the Associated Press contributed to this article.