If recent months are a barometer, 2012 is shaping up to be another banner year for a small home-health business on an unnoticeable lot in Key Lime Square that has spent decades fighting the world's largest pharmaceutical companies accused of defrauding taxpayers of billions of dollars.
Ven-A-Care of the Florida Keys has become a thorn in the side of drugmakers, and this year has scored a series of major wins against drug giants Abbott, Actavis, GlaxoSmithKline and Merck worth more than $6.5 billion alone, said Patrick Burns of the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit group Taxpayers Against Fraud.
"Your little Ven-A-Care down there is the most successful single whistleblower in the nation," Burns said.
Ven-A-Care has sued drug companies that allegedly defraud Medicare and Medicaid by reporting false or highly inflated drug prices, according to the Department of Justice and published media reports. The long, drawn-out battle that began nearly 20 years ago is now coming to fruition in state and federal courts nationwide.
"The drug companies have realized the gig is up," Burns said. "Frankly, that's what's happening. And it took someone like the Ven-A-Care guys in Key West to show all these states how to do it."
Ven-A-Care sues such companies under the False Claims Act, which allows private citizens or companies to file lawsuits on behalf of the government in order to provide the government with fraud information.
If federal prosecutors resolve or settle the issue, whoever got the ball rolling is eligible to receive between 15 percent to 25 percent of the settlement money.
"The whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act have been the most important factor spurring the recent wave of federal settlements," reads a recent press release by Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. "Whistleblowers were responsible for initiating 21 federal settlements under the False Claims Act during the most recent period studied (Nov. 2, 2010-July 18, 2012). Almost half the whistleblower-prompted federal and state settlements during this time were made possible by a single whistleblower, Ven-A-Care pharmacy in Key West."
Ven-A-Care's lucrative sideline began about two decades ago when the owners refused to sell the small company to National Medical Care, which reportedly forced Ven-A-Care out of business by swallowing its customers, Burns said.
As the four owners began to research why such a big national company was interested in their small business, which primarily treated HIV patients at home with water-soluble intravenous drugs, Ven-A-Care learned that National Medical Care (NMC) was defrauding the government.
It turned out National Medical Care was paying doctors kickbacks for referrals and billing Medicare and Medicaid hundreds of times more than what their medicines actually cost, Burns said.
That investigation led federal prosecutors to reach a $486 million settlement with National Medical Care, thrusting Ven-A-Care into the whistle-blower arena with its $40 million reward under the False Claims Act.
Ven-A-Care owners typically avoid the spotlight and messages left at their offices Thursday were not returned by Friday.
The company was formed in 1987 by Zachary Bentley, Luis Cobo, Dr. John Lockwood and Mark T. Jones -- no relation to the Monroe County circuit judge of the same name.
And quietly they continue, Burns said. Soon, Ven-A-Care's claims against the drug companies that started many years ago will be resolved. Its resolutions in recent months have catapulted the tiny Keys company into the national spotlight, Burns said.
"It's the quiet people who do the right thing who often make a difference, and every taxpayer owes Ven-A-Care of Key West a giant debt of gratitude," Burns said.