Addictive painkiller prescribed to some who didn't need it, lawsuit says

By: Allison Latos

Updated:

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - A dangerously addictive painkiller approved only for cancer patients has been prescribed to people who should never have taken it.

A South Carolina woman claims her doctor lied to her about the medicine called Subsys, and got her addicted, while he pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Her case targets a company already under fire.

Several former executives, including a Charlotte man, face criminal charges of bribing doctors.

Angela Cantone's hip pain still wouldn't go away, even after two surgeries.

She said Dr. Aathi Thiyaga at Spine and Pain Care in Greenville, South Carolina, prescribed her a pain medicine called Subsys.

“You take it and spray it under your tongue,” Cantone said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the fentanyl spray only for cancer patients who are already on pain medication but still experience severe pain.

“I was never told this medicine was just for cancer patients, ever,” said Cantone, who never has had cancer.

Cantone said Thiyaga increased her doses to the point that she couldn't function without the drug.

“My body would physically know when I was out,” Cantone said. “I would go through withdrawals.”

Cantone believes Subsys could have killed her.

Thiyaga received more than $200,000 from 2013 through 2015 from Insys Therapeutics for speaking, travel, lodging, food and beverage, according to the federally run Open Payments Transparency Program.

Nonprofit journalism organization Propublica lists him as one of the top 10 doctors in the country to benefit from Insys payments.

Randy Hood represents Cantone in a civil lawsuit.

“They're putting profits over their patients and that, to be very frank with you, is gross,” Hood said. “It's immoral, it's unethical and it has to be stopped.”

The civil lawsuit was filed against Insys Therapeutics, a mail order pharmacy, Linden Care, Thiyaga and his office.

Families across the country have sued Insys Therapeutics, claiming their loved ones died from taking Subsys and that the drug should not have been prescribed for them.

Several former company officials face criminal charges, accused of bribing doctors to prescribe the powerful painkiller.

That includes the former vice president of sales, Alec Burlakoff of Charlotte.

Neither Thiyaga or anyone at Insys Therapeutics or the pharmacy answered the phone when Channel 9 called to ask questions.

Insys Therapeutics posted a statement online this month saying in part, "We remain committed to cultivating a culture of trust, transparency and ethical behavior … The company has taken appropriate steps to strive to ensure that ethical standards of conduct and patient interests are at the heart of all business decisions."

Hood hopes Cantone's court battle brings change.

“When you shine a light, the roaches will scatter, and that's what we're hoping will happen in this case,” Hood said.

Cantone said she'll fight addiction for the rest of her life.

“There's not a day that goes by that I don't have to keep my sobriety in check, all because of choices people made to make themselves richer,” Cantone said.

The South Carolina Medical Board's website lists Thiyaga in good standing.

Federal court documents show state officials issued subpoenas for Thiyaga's records of patients prescribed Subsys in 2015.

State officials said they cannot acknowledge complaints, if any, against physicians.

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