Drug Company Fined $515 Million

From the Associated Press:

Bristol Settles Drug Marketing Probe

Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. and a former subsidiary have agreed to pay more than $515 million to settle federal and state investigations into their drug marketing and pricing practices.

The civil settlement announced Friday resolves a broad array of allegations against Bristol-Myers Squibb, dating from 1994 through 2005.

Among them were a charge that the New York-based pharmaceutical company illegally promoted the sale of Abilify, an anti-psychotic drug, for pediatric use and to treat dementia-related psychoses. Neither use is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In the second quarter, the company reported $412 million in sales of Abilify, approved to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, a 27 percent increase from a year earlier.

Although physicians are permitted to prescribe drugs for off-label uses, drug companies are prohibited from marketing them for uses that have not been approved by the FDA. [full text]

The Politics of Protection

At various times, President Bush has asserted that his “biggest job is to protect the American people.” However, the last 6+ years have amply demonstrated that the Decider has a decidedly narrow notion of what it means “to protect,” as evidenced by the habitual favor granted to corporate fat cats at the expense of the American people. Yesterday, the New York Times reported that “the Food and Drug Administration does very little to ensure the safety of the millions of people who participate in clinical trials.” Today, the Washington Post offers a report, excerpted below, that details how the Environmental Protection Agency is doing less to protect the public from polluters. And, in the coming days, the President will likely veto a bipartisan bill to provide a needed expansion of health care coverage for this nation’s children. Heckuva job, Bushie…

Bush’s EPA Is Pursuing Fewer Polluters

The Environmental Protection Agency’s pursuit of criminal cases against polluters has dropped off sharply during the Bush administration, with the number of prosecutions, new investigations and total convictions all down by more than a third, according to Justice Department and EPA data.

The number of civil lawsuits filed against defendants who refuse to settle environmental cases was down nearly 70 percent between fiscal years 2002 and 2006, compared with a four-year period in the late 1990s, according to those same statistics.

Critics of the agency say its flagging efforts have emboldened polluters to flout U.S. environmental laws, threatening progress in cleaning the air, protecting wildlife, eliminating hazardous materials, and countless other endeavors overseen by the EPA.

“You don’t get cleanup, and you don’t get deterrence,” said Eric Schaeffer, who resigned as director of the EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement in 2002 to protest the administration’s approach to enforcement and now heads the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group. “I don’t think this is a problem with agents in the field. They’re capable of doing the work. They lack the political support they used to be able to count on, especially in the White House.”

The slower pace of enforcement mirrors a decline in resources for pursuing environmental wrongdoing. The EPA now employs 172 investigators in its Criminal Investigation Division, below the minimum of 200 agents required by the 1990 Pollution Prosecution Act, signed by President George H.W. Bush. [full text]

Students Exercise Democracy in Colorado

While democracy may be withering on the vine in the corridors of the White House, it appears to be considerably less atrophied in the corridors of Boulder High School, as the following news story from the Denver Post suggests:

Boulder students protest “God” in Pledge

About 100 students at Boulder High School walked out after their first class this morning, to recite an alternative Pledge of Allegiance, in protest.

They object to hearing the phrase “one nation, under God” during the morning Pledge recitation, led over the school’s public address system.

‘We don’t object to pledging to our country, but we do object to pledging to a religion,” said Ashley Guesman, 17, a protest organizer.

State law requires high schools to give students the opportunity to say the Pledge of Allegiance. In past years, Boulder High allowed students to gather either at 7:15 a.m. or at lunchtime to recite it.

This year, a more formal arrangement was made, to broadcast the Pledge over the PA system at 8:30 a.m., according to principal Bud Jenkins.

Jenkins said the old Pledge routine required an adminstrator to stop whatever he was doing at lunchtime to meet the kids. At times, administrators would be too busy, and the kids would miss out.

This year, the recitation was made more organized and formal.

Jenkins, who’s been principal for three years, graduated from Boulder High in 1971, at a time when the pledge was not recited.

He said that this morning’s protest was not disruptive, and that there would be no consequences for participants.

“If the kids want to recite the Pledge, we respect that. If they don’t want to recite the Pledge, we respect that. If they want to recite a different Pledge, I guess we need to respect that,” he said.

“This is not a cookie-cutter high school,” he said. “These kids are experiencing the democratic process, and putting their ideas out to the community. Nothing that happened today is anti-American. Good for the kids. I’m proud that they follow the democratic process of telling the community about ideas they disagree with.” [full text]

Kudos to Principal Bud Jenkins for not overreacting to the student protest and for recognizing that dissent is to democracy what a brisk walk is to the human heart.

Poetry in a Time of War

Poetry is a powerful medium. In its eloquence and concision, poetry can convey shades and depths of meaning unlike any other form of literature. Consider the following poem by Brian Turner, a veteran of the Iraq War:

Ashbah

The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night,
unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice
sounds from the minaret, a soulful call
reminding them how alone they are,
how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,
leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.

It may surprise—and, perhaps, please—you to learn that poetry is taught to the cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point. In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, English professor Elizabeth E. Samet writes of her experiences teaching the work of Shakespeare, Milton, Yeats, et al. to the young men and women who, one day soon, may find themselves half a world away in Baghdad or Fallujah…or “Balad.” The article is entitled “In the Valley of the Shadow,” and I encourage you to read it.

Jackvony Ponders the Nature of Nappylies.com

Randy Jackvony, former Chair of the Cranston Republican City Committee and writer at The Cranston Herald, discusses Nappylies.com in his column this week. For those who need a little history, Randy was kicked off the Cranston Republican City Committee in 2004. He stated that he was told to tender his resignation. When I asked him why, there was a pause. I said, “Was this because of Laffey?” and he said, “Yeah, basically.”

So I guess you could say that the young Jackvony’s relationship with the Cranston Republicans is a little … strained by his past run-ins with the former Mayor-in-Chief, Steve Laffey. But I thought his column was interesting, and he allowed me to share my two cents about whether Nappylies might rub some people the wrong way, even as it offers important information. From The Cranston Herald:

When I first saw the Web site that the Cranston Republican City Committee put up to highlight many of its criticisms of Mayor Michael Napolitano, I was a bit taken aback by its coarseness.

Merely typing the Web site address into the location bar of your favorite Internet browser may elicit some cringes from the more mild-mannered in Cranston. But you should do it anyway, visit http://www.nappylies.com.

When I reviewed the site for the first time, I wondered if the important message the Cranston GOP was trying to get across would be overshadowed by the caustic nature of the criticism.

“Is Mayor Napolitano dishonest or incompetent,� questions the GOP site. It then goes on to list a number of “exhibits� to show his dishonesty or incompetence. The exhibits are compelling unto themselves and often use the mayor’s own statements against him. I won’t list them all here, but here is one as an example.

On the site: “What he said: ‘Napolitano promised “meaningful tax relief� for homeowners.’ Providence Journal 4/19/06. What he did: Napolitano raised Cranston property taxes by more than 5 percent, nearly the maximum allowed by state law. Providence Journal 3/30/07.�

I knew about and agreed with most of the exhibits before I even visited the site (for example, in one of my May columns I criticized Napolitano for saying as a candidate, “Holding the line on taxes will be my highest priority.� [full text]

Other notables interviewed for his article include David Exter of the Republican City Committee, and Justin Katz of Anchorrising.com.

Cranston High School Class Sizes Improved

Steve Stycos of the Cranston School Committee sends good news about the class sizes at Cranston’s High Schools. Stycos writes:

HIGH SCHOOL CLASS SIZES IMPROVE

Last year, School Committee member Paul Archetto and I publically called for lower high school class sizes. At the time, 51 classes at East and 81 classes at West had 30 or more students.

This year the situation has improved significantly. The administration reports that East has 21 classes with 30 or more students and West has only 13.

The administration credits better scheduling efforts for the improvement. Another factor was the school committee’s approval of a budget amendment I sponsored to shift 1.5 positions from the elementary to the high schools. Another key contribution was the large number of parents who attended school committee budget sessions to complain about large class sizes.

Thanks to our school committee members who paid attention to this problem and did something about it. And thank you to parents who raised their concerns — more proof that citizen activism can lead to positive results. It totally amazes me that, primarily by rescheduling things, this problem was greatly reduced and the quality of education for our high schoolers was improved. Other communities across Rhode Island should take notice of this and find out how these wizard schedulers figured out how to reduce class sizes.

Will Private Student Loans Follow Sub-Prime Mortgages in Default Crisis?

Writer Eric Dash of The New York Times says there are dangerous parallels between the subprime mortgage market problems and the private student loan industry, which reportedly signs up borrowers at variable rates which later skyrocket and make loan payments unmanageable. From The Times:

ON a sunny June morning, Daniel M. Meyers stands at the helm of the gleaming, 60-foot racing yacht he bought several years ago with part of the fortune he had earned as a pioneer in the private student loan industry.

Heading out to sea, he joshes with his 16 crew members as they prepare for the start of a regatta. Mr. Meyers’s love of finance is reflected in the name of his boat: Numbers. He also has a chase boat called Fractions and a dinghy called Decimals. “I know, it sounds a little corny,� he says.

Corny, absolutely. But his knack for numbers allowed Mr. Meyers to unearth riches by marketing loans to college students who needed financial assistance after they had exhausted less expensive options offered through federally subsidized loan programs.

Mr. Meyers’s student-lending niche has exploded into something of the norm as the cost of a college education has skyrocketed. And the company he helped to found 16 years ago, First Marblehead, is now one of the biggest in a $20 billion industry that occupies one of the most lucrative segments of consumer lending.

But such growth — as well as the fact that debt levels for newly minted graduates have more than doubled over the last decade — has drawn the scrutiny of Congress and regulators. Andrew M. Cuomo, the New York State attorney general, has helped expose financial ties between some lenders and colleges — including kickbacks to financial aid officers — that put their own interests ahead of those of students. (First Marblehead was not one of the companies implicated.)

The student loan industry could be in for more jolts. Policy makers and regulators say that there are dangerous parallels between the private student loan and subprime mortgage markets. In both, there have been phenomenal profits, aggressive marketing and, until the recent credit market turmoil, a healthy appetite from Wall Street investors.

And, as was seen in the subprime market, many student loans that were made in the last couple of years are resetting at much higher rates.

Benjamin M. Lawsky, who is leading the state attorney general’s investigation of student loans, says that certain practices in the business give rise to many questions. “Are lenders making responsible loans?� he asks. “Or are they just saddling people with debt they will not be able to repay?�

In the last few weeks, Mr. Cuomo’s office has started a broader inquiry into the industry’s marketing tactics, according to people close to the matter who did not want to be identified because they are not authorized to speak about a continuing investigation. These people say that First Marblehead, the company that Mr. Meyers helped found, is one of more than a dozen being examined, and that an inquiry into the incentives used by packagers of private student loans is coming next. [full text]

A rebuttal of Mr. Dash’s article is made by hedge fund manager Tom Brown in this article. Tom Brown discloses at the end that he holds positions in First Marblehead, the private student loan business that is featured in Mr. Dash’s article. Brown tries to discredit the idea that student loans will follow the disastrous course that subprime mortgages have taken. He also notes that the questionable tactics of direct-to-consumer student loans are something that First Marblehead subcontracts out to other businesses. Thus he suggests they are clean and not responsible for the practices.

The bottom line is that predatory lending is wrong and unfair. It sets people up for failure. To the extent that private entrepreneurs are getting massively rich by reeling in students and signing them up for loans that they are not going to be able to pay — this should be investigated, and those responsible should be charged and, if guilty, shut down. But the other side of the coin is that the government does not provide nearly enough student loans to cover the burgeoning cost of college education. These private lenders are providing a service that is in demand. If we really want to fix this problem, there needs to be a better alternative, which means more and better loans provided by the government.