J&J joins Pfizer, Celgene, Biogen and more in DOJ's patient-assistance dragnet

Pfizer isn’t the only Big Pharma targeted by the Justice Department for its contributions to patient-assistance charities. Johnson & Johnson has its own subpoena in hand, the company disclosed in a securities filing on Monday.

The notification was brief: J&J received a subpoena this month from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston, demanding information on its payments to charities that help Medicare patients pay for their meds. And J&J was quick to remind shareholders that it wasn’t alone.

“Multiple pharmaceutical companies have publicly reported receipt of similar subpoenas and ongoing inquiries,” the filing states.

RELATED: Prosecutors rope Pfizer into fast-growing copay assistance probe

It’s not kidding. On Monday, Pfizer was just the latest of J&J’s fellow drugmakers to disclose a related demand from the Justice Department. The New York-based drug giant said it had received two subpoenas, one in late 2015 and the second in July 2016, asking for information about its relationship with the Patient Access Network Foundation and other nonprofits that offer financial assistance to Medicare patients.

Valeant Pharmaceuticals was the first drugmaker to disclose a DOJ inquiry about its patient-assistance activities; in October 2015, amid harsh criticism of its price hikes and a separate investigation into its ties with specialty pharmacies, Valeant said it had received subpoenas for materials related to its patient-assistance programs. Horizon Pharmaceuticals, another specialty pharma, announced its own subpoena last March. 

After that, biotech giants Gilead Sciences and Biogen, as well as a smaller biotech, Jazz Pharmaceuticals, all disclosed subpoenas or other DOJ demands related to patient charities.

RELATED: Biogen joins peers in federal probe of patient assistance programs

Celgene noted a similar subpoena last August, just as a whistleblower suit heated up; that lawsuit claims the company forked over large sums to charities to boost sales of its top-selling blood cancer med, Revlimid. As of earlier this month, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals joined the list, too.

Most drugmakers offer copay assistance programs of their own, but they’re limited to patients with commercial insurance. Federal law prohibits pharma companies from pitching in on drug costs for patients covered by government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Charities, on the other hand, face no such restrictions, and drugmakers have been contributing to those organizations for years. The federal investigation appears to have been prompted by concerns that those donations come with tacit earmarks for the company’s own drugs—which is against the rules. The charities and drugmakers have denied linking donations with particular products.