To doctors opening patients’ electronic records across the U.S., the alert would have looked innocuous enough.
A pop-up would appear, asking about a patient’s level of pain. Then, a drop-down menu would list treatments ranging from a referral to a pain specialist to a prescription for an opioid painkiller.
Click a button, and the program would create a treatment plan. From 2016 to spring 2019, the alert went off about 230 million times.
The tool existed thanks to a secret deal. Its maker, a software company called Practice Fusion, was paid by a major opioid manufacturer to design it in an effort to boost prescriptions for addictive pain pills — even though overdose deaths had almost tripled during the prior 15 years, creating a public-health disaster. The software was used by tens of thousands of doctors’ offices.
Its existence was revealed this week thanks to a government investigation. Practice Fusion agreed to pay $145 million to resolve civil and criminal cases, according to documents filed in a Vermont federal court. Practice Fusion admitted to the scheme with an unnamed opioid maker, though the details of the government case closely match a public research partnership between Practice Fusion and Purdue Pharma Inc., which makes OxyContin.
Representatives for Purdue Pharma and the Vermont U.S. attorney declined to comment. Health-software company Allscripts Healthcare Solutions Inc., which bought Practice Fusion for $100 million in 2018, said in a statement the conduct predated the deal and it has “further strengthened” compliance at Practice Fusion, but didn’t answer specific questions about the settlement….