‘Pain Hustlers’ True Story, Explained: What Was Insys (Zanna) Therapeutics Pharma Scandal?


Directed by David Yates, Pain Hustlers, starring Emily Blunt, Chris Evans, and Andy Garcia in the lead roles, is inspired by real events and shows us what happens when the priority of a healthcare system becomes to attain profit at any cost. The makers have taken a lot of creative liberties, and the film is not an exact adaptation of the works of Evan Hughes. Though the names of the characters and the nitty-gritty details of the Insys Therapeutics Pharma scandal have been changed, the essence has pretty much been kept the same. The medical profession is considered to be a noble service, and it is different from other professions because if there are corrupt practices here, it is not only a violation of the law but also means that people would end up losing their lives. When a doctor decides to prescribe a drug that he knows his patient does not need at that moment, he is not only committing a crime but also putting the lives of hundreds of people at risk. We had seen in the case of Richard Sackler’s Purdue Pharma how greed drives the motives of these businesses, with little to no regard for a patient who put his trust in his doctor and then later finds out that he had been duped.

What Were The Major Differences From The Real-Life Scandal?

In the Pain Hustlers film, the pharma company is named Zanna Therapeutics, whereas in real life, it is called Insys Therapeutics. The company was founded by John Kapoor, on whom the character of Dr. Neel, played by Andy Garcia, is based. The company produced a spray named Subsys, the main ingredient of which was fentanyl, though in the film, the medication is called Lonafen. The character of Chris Evans, the CEO Pete Brenner, could be said to be loosely based on Michael Babich, who, at the time of the scandal, was the CEO of Insys Therapeutics, and he worked very closely with John Kapoor during the launch of Subsys. But a lot of things about this character have been changed in the film, and the makers have taken creative liberties to introduce conflicts in his life that probably didn’t happen in real life. We do not know what kind of relationship Babich had with Kapoor or if the events occurred in the same manner as they were depicted in the film. The character of Emily Blunt was also not based on any specific person, but it could be said that the makers took inspiration from the real-life whistleblower named Maria Guzman, because of whom the scandal had come to light. Just like Guzman, Blunt’s character was also a sales representative, who was later promoted after she cracked a few deals that enabled the pharma company to make huge profits. We don’t know if Guzman’s character also went through a similar dilemma or not, but since she went to court to expose the company, we can safely assume that a time would have come in her life when she would have decided to let her conscience prevail over everything else.

What Does The Film Get Right?

Well, the entire strategy where Brenner, Neel, and Liza Drake decided to bribe the doctors to prescribe their drug was true, and in real life, too, a lot of so-called speaker programs were organized by Insys Therapeutics so that they could increase their brand awareness and use it as an opportunity to lure in medical practitioners. At this point in time, they were well aware of the side effects that their drug could end up having, but they still went ahead with it. In Pain Hustlers, it is shown that the company made use of the study authored by Elliot Hartigan (name changed in the film), but they didn’t reveal a chunk of it and used only the part that suited their strategy. In reality, Insys Pharma left out the crucial parts in order to get FDA approvals. They hid the fact that during the trial, the drug was only given to opioid-tolerant patients, which is why the chances of addiction came out to be less than one percent.

Also, one very important point was that the drug was administered to stage 4 cancer patients, which means that before the addiction and abuse became an issue, they had already succumbed to their illness. The study concluded that if any person was not suffering from a terminal illness, then the risk of overdose or addiction was dangerously high for them, but obviously, as shown in the film, Insys Pharma hid that fact from the doctors and the authorities. It is true that, after a point in time, Insys Pharma asked the doctors to prescribe the medication for all sorts of pain, be it a minor headache or excruciating body ache due to a terminal illness. That’s where they destroyed the lives of hundreds of people, and they did it without even batting an eyelid. John Kapoor would have escaped the charges, but as shown in the film, the authorities came to know about his wire fraud and found him guilty under the RICO Act. We don’t know if Kapoor, as shown in the film, explicitly asked the CEO to take the blame or not, but we can be sure that he would have tried every trick to escape the charges.

In the end, apart from John Kapoor and Michael Babich, five other employees (Alec Burlakoff, Richard Simon, Sunrise Lee, Joseph Robinson, and Michael Gurry) were convicted by the court. In 2019, Insys Pharma filed for bankruptcy, as they must have realized that there was no way out of this mess. They tried their level best to curtail the damage even after their fraudulent tactics came out in the open, but in the end, due to the efforts of a few people, truth prevailed, and the Justice Department made sure that the perpetrators faced the consequences of their actions.

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Sushrut Gopesh
Sushrut Gopesh
I came to Mumbai to bring characters to life. I like to dwell in the cinematic world and ponder over philosophical thoughts. I believe in the kind of cinema that not necessarily makes you laugh or cry but moves something inside you.

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