By Pat Anson, Editor
The founder and CEO of the U.S. Pain Foundation – an advocacy group representing chronic pain patients -- has resigned under pressure.
Paul Gileno resigned Tuesday, May 29th at the request of the foundation’s board of directors, according to a statement released on Thursday by U.S. Pain. It is highly unusual for a non-profit’s board of directors to remove its CEO. No explanation was offered for Gileno’s sudden departure
Nicole Hemmenway, U.S. Pain’s chairperson, has been appointed as interim CEO. A search for Gileno’s replacement is underway.
“The organization is stable and excited to be moving forward on its mission – to empower, educate, connect and advocate for people living with chronic conditions that cause pain,” said board member Ellen Lenox Smith. “The Board has complete faith in Nicole and the wonderful staff that makes up our organization.”
U.S. Pain has recently faced criticism over its relationship with Insys Therapeutics, an Arizona drug maker under investigation for its marketing of Subsys, an oral fentanyl spray blamed for hundreds of overdose deaths. Former Insys executives and sales representatives have been charged with racketeering and bribing doctors to prescribe Subsys off-label. A four day supply of Subsys can cost nearly $24,000.
In recent years, Insys has donated over $3.1 million to U.S. Pain, with most of the money going to a prescription discount program to help patients pay for Subsys and other medications prescribed for breakthrough cancer pain. Critics say the program was primarily designed to benefit Insys by allowing the company to bypass Medicare rules governing illegal kickbacks.
“Co-pay assistance programs (also called copay charities) were created to get around this restriction. Medicare allows copay charities to cover Medicare co-pays, so pharmaceutical companies funnel money through these groups to cover co-pay costs for Medicare patients while bilking Medicare, which bears the full cost of unnecessarily expensive drugs,” a group of critics said in a blog post by The Hastings Center.
Last week Pfizer agreed to pay a $24 million fine to resolve federal charges that it used a similar co-pay assistance program to pay kickbacks to Medicare patients. “Pfizer used a third party to saddle Medicare with extra costs," said U.S. attorney Andrew Lelling.
In a statement released in February, Gileno defended U.S. Pain’s acceptance of funding from Insys for the co-pay assistance program.
"This funding, like any funding we receive, does not influence our values,” Gileno said. “The funding we receive is not used to promote one type of treatment over another.”
According to a report released by Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, U.S. Pain received $2.5 million from Insys in 2017 – an amount three times larger than what the non-profit received from all donors in 2015.
(Update: U.S. Pain has a statement on its website saying its copay assistance program with Insys ended “as of August 2018” and that “U.S. Pain will not accept funding from Insys going forward.”)
Gileno founded the Connecticut Pain Foundation in 2006 after a back injury forced him to abandon his catering business. In 2011, he launched U.S. Pain, which now claims to be the nation’s largest patient advocacy group. It's growth was fueled by marketing partnerships and donations from dozens of pharmaceutical companies and healthcare organizations.
In its 2016 promotional material, U.S. Pain claimed to have over 90,000 members and over 225,000 social media followers, including 59,000 followers on Twitter. However, that was reduced to less than 14,000 followers in early 2018 after Twitter purged from its system millions of fake accounts.
(Update: U.S. Pain has revised the way it counts actively “engaged members.” The organization now says its has over 15,000 members, 1,500 volunteers and a social media reach of more than 217,000 followers.)
In 2015, Gileno was paid a salary of nearly $404,000, according to U.S. Pain's tax return. Gileno says the 2015 compensation was for “back pay” from 2006 to 2012. The foundation has not publicly released its tax returns for 2016 or 2017, so we don’t know how much Gileno was paid for those years.
In a 2018 New Year’s message to U.S. Pain members, Gileno said he “would never sell out.”
“Not once has the creation of this foundation been about boosting my ego, finding public notoriety or obtaining fame. I am here to serve you. I will never jeopardize our mission or passion to gain five minutes of fame for myself," Gileno said.
"The work of U.S. Pain Foundation is 100% genuine. There are no strings attached or ulterior motives. All that I care about is further enhancing the lives of people suffering with pain, and we will continue to do so in a discreet and powerful manner."
Gileno has been criticized by some in the pain community for a passive approach to patient advocacy that avoided public controversy and protest. Some say he also has an overbearing personality that rubbed people the wrong way.
“There are so many reasons I could cite as to why it’s good to have Paul out, but I am biased because he was one of my biggest bullies and a thief to others in the chronic pain community,” a longtime patient advocate who asked to remain anonymous told PNN. “I am hoping the leadership at U.S. Pain Foundation will do better than they have in the past.”
Interim CEO Nicole Hemmenway has been a key member of U.S. Pain since its inception. She has lived with Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) most of her life.
“We’re very focused on the future. We have a lot of wonderful programs and events coming up – a training program for chronic pain support group leaders in June; our Pain Awareness Month campaign and related activities this September; and our first retreat for pediatric patients this November,” Hemmenway said in a statement.