Health Law Advisor

Thought Leaders On Laws And Regulations Affecting Health Care And Life Sciences

Change Is Here – President Trump’s First Day Includes Addressing the Affordable Care Act and Freezing Regulations

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On his first day in office, President Trump issued an Executive Order entitled “Minimizing the Economic Burden of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Pending Repeal.” The Executive Order is, in effect, a policy statement by the new administration that it intends to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the “ACA” or the “Act”) as promptly as possible. The Executive Order also directs the Secretary of Health and Human Services and the heads of all other executive departments and agencies that, pending repeal of the ACA, they are to exercise the full extent of their authority and discretion to “take all actions consistent with law to minimize the unwarranted economic and regulatory burdens of the Act, and prepare to afford the States more flexibility and control to create a more free and open healthcare market.”

Impact on the Individual Mandate

The Executive Order does not explicitly name provisions of the ACA to be targeted by executive agency and department heads. However, Section 2 appears to be aimed at the ACA’s “individual mandate,” which requires that individuals obtain health care insurance or pay a fine, and one potential effect of the Executive Order may be limited enforcement of the individual mandate:

To the maximum extent permitted by law, the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary) and the heads of all other executive departments and agencies (agencies) with authorities and responsibilities under the Act shall exercise all authority and discretion available to them to waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay the implementation of any provision or requirement of the Act that would impose a fiscal burden on any State or a cost, fee, tax, penalty, or regulatory burden on individuals, families, healthcare providers, health insurers, patients, recipients of healthcare services, purchasers of health insurance, or makers of medical devices, products, or medications.

Impact on the Insurance Marketplace

The Executive Order also mandates that executive agency and department heads “provide greater flexibility to States and cooperate with them in implementing healthcare programs,” and “encourage the development of a free and open market in interstate commerce for the offering of healthcare services and health insurance, with the goal of achieving and preserving maximum options for patients and consumers.”

Regulatory Freeze

Also on January 20, 2017, the White House issued a memorandum to the heads of executive departments and agencies entitled “Regulatory Freeze Pending Review.” The memorandum directs that, except for certain emergency situations, no regulation be sent to the “Office of Federal Register (the “OFR”) until a department or agency head appointed or designated by the President after noon on January 20, 2017, reviews and approves the regulation.” “[W]ith respect to regulations that have been published in the OFR but have not yet taken effect,” the memorandum directs agency and department heads to postpone the effective date for 60 days from the date of the memorandum, as permitted by law and subject to exceptions for emergency situations. The memo also instructs executive agency and department heads to consider delaying effective dates beyond the 60-day period to address substantial questions of law or policy.

So, What Does This Mean…..From the Counselor to the President 

On Sunday, January 22, 2017, Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, said that President Trump “wants to get rid of that Obamacare penalty almost immediately, because that is something that is really strangling a lot of Americans…”[1]

When asked if Trump would stop enforcing the individual mandate, she replied, “He may.” Conway also stated that the Trump Administration planned to end ACA’s requirement that employers with more than 50 full-time workers offer affordable coverage to their workers. “We’re doing away with this Obamacare penalty,” she said. “This tax has been… a burden on many small business owners…”[2]

Conway also noted that the Trump Administration does not intend to eliminate ACA entirely: “For the 20 million who rely upon the Affordable Care Act in some form, they will not be without coverage during his transition time.”[3] Conway noted that the President is “going to replace this with a plan that allows you to buy insurance across state lines, that is much more centered around the patient, and access to health care. . .”[4]

What’s Next And What To Watch?

Earlier today, Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana unveiled a bill intended to be an “Obamacare replacement plan,” “The Patient Freedom Act of 2017.” The Senators’ proposal, which is based upon a proposal originally put forward by the Senators in 2015, is intended to provide more power to the states on health care policy, to increase access to affordable insurance, and to help cover those who are currently uninsured.[5] For instance, states who like Obamacare will be able to keep it. Senator Cassidy explained as follows: “So, California and New York, you love Obamcare? You can keep it.”

In sum, uncertainty remains as to the extent that ACA will be changed, replaced, or otherwise amended, whether the changes will be administrative or legislative, and how much the changes to the Act will disrupt the health care marketplace. A flurry of further activity by the President, agency administrators, and members of Congress is expected over the coming days and weeks. Health care entities should closely follow these developments to ensure that they have sufficient time to react and adapt to the changing health care environment.

___

[1] ‘This Week’ Transcript 1-22-17: Kellyanne Conway, Sen. John McCain, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/week-transcript-22-17-kellyanne-conway-sen-john/story?id=44954948 (last accessed Jan. 23, 2017).

[2] Trump’s ACA executive order heightens insurance market jitters, Modern Healthcare, Jan. 22, 2017, http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20170122/NEWS/170129985/breaking-trumps-aca-executive-order-heightens-insurance-market (last accessed Jan. 23, 2017).

[3] Emily Schultheis, Top Trump Aide: 20M on Obamacare “Will Not Be Without Coverage” in Transition to New Plan, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/top-trump-aide-20m-on-obamacare-will-not-be-without-coverage-in-transition-to-new-plan/ (last accessed Jan. 23, 2017).

[4] ‘This Week’ Transcript 1-22-17: Kellyanne Conway, Sen. John McCain, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/week-transcript-22-17-kellyanne-conway-sen-john/story?id=44954948 (last accessed Jan. 23, 2017).

[5] https://www.collins.senate.gov/newsroom/senators-collins-cassidy-introduce-aca-replacement-plan-expand-choices-lower-health-care (last accessed Jan. 23, 2017).

FDA Says Yes to Pre-Approval Communications with Payors but Reaffirms its Approach to Restrictions on Off-Label Communications

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Early January has seen the release by FDA of a flurry of information on drug and device manufacturer communications, largely reaffirming FDA’s long-held approach to restricting manufacturer communications regarding off-label uses of approved drugs and medical devices. The most significant positive development arising from these documents is the Agency’s concession on proactive pre-approval communications with payors about investigational drugs and devices, allowing certain information to be provided to payors prior to a product’s approval. FDA’s guidance documents issued this week also clarify some grey areas surrounding the circumstances under which manufacturers may communicate about information that is consistent with or related to an approved indication, but is not included in approved product labeling.

While these pronouncements provide drug and device manufacturers with some additional leeway in their communications regarding investigational products and certain information about the approved uses of their products that is not included in the approved labeling, they do not address long-standing questions regarding the circumstances under which manufacturers may communicate about unapproved uses of their products in light of recent First Amendment case law. Instead, these last words of the Agency under the outgoing administration signal that, at least under the direction of current administration, FDA is not inclined to significantly expand manufacturers’ ability to communicate regarding unapproved uses of their products without the risk of enforcement. The eventual impact of the new administration on FDA’s approach to off-label communications remains a significant unknown.

In draft guidance on Drug and Device Manufacturer Communications with Payors, Formulary Committees and Similar Entities – Questions and Answers released on January 18, FDA signifies its acceptance of the position long held by industry and payors alike that payors need access to information regarding investigational drugs and devices to help them plan and budget for coverage of these products once they are approved. In the draft guidance, FDA states that it will not object to manufacturers providing payors with “unbiased, factual, accurate and non-misleading” information regarding investigational drugs and medical devices, provided that those communications include a clear statement of the investigational status of the product and that its safety and effectiveness have not been established, along with information regarding the stage of product development of the product.

Information that may be provided by manufacturers in accordance with FDA’s recommendations in the draft guidance includes information about the product such as its drug class or design, the indication sought and the patient population under investigation, a factual presentation of the results of clinical and pre-clinical studies without any conclusions regarding the product’s safety and effectiveness, the anticipated timeline for FDA approval, product pricing information, and anticipated marketing strategies and product-related programs and services, such as patient assistance programs. FDA also recommends that manufacturers update payors with any significant new information about the investigational product that differs from information previously communicated to them.

As suggested by its title, the primary focus of the draft guidance is on the communication of health care economic information (“HCEI”) regarding prescription drugs to payors, interpreting the changes to FDAMA Section 114 included in the 21st Century Cures Act that was signed into law in December. Notably, unlike FDA’s recommendations regarding pre-approval product communications with payors, this portion of the draft guidance does not apply to HCEI regarding medical devices. The draft guidance also makes it clear that the expanded HCEI communications permitted by FDAMA 114, as amended, are limited to payors, and similar flexibility in the levels of evidence required to support HCEI communications to payors do not apply to communications with health care providers or consumers. Additionally, consistent with the statute, the draft guidance limits the HCEI that may be provided to information that “relates to” an approved indication, confirming that FDA does not currently intend to permit the proactive dissemination to payors of HCEI related to off-label use.

In a series of questions and answers, FDA provides recommendations regarding the types of HCEI that may be provided, the scope of the payor audience to which this information may be provided, the types of competent and reliable scientific evidence that may be relied upon, the information that must be disclosed along with HCEI provided to payors, and perhaps mostly usefully, examples of the circumstances under which FDA will determine HCEI to relate, and not to relate, to an approved indication. FDA describes the categories of information that will be deemed to relate to an approved indication, even if they do not appear within, or vary in some respects from, the approved labeling; provided that the information is not inconsistent with the approved labeling. These include, among others, information on duration of treatment, burden of illness, length of hospital stay, information including actual patient use of an approved drug that varies from the approved dosing regimen, and information derived from clinical data demonstrating an effect on a validated surrogate endpoint or a comparison of safety and effectiveness with another drug or intervention.

FDA’s approach to “related” information in the draft guidance is similar to that taken in another draft guidance it released on January 17 on Medical Product Communications that are Consistent with the FDA-Required Labeling – Questions and Answers. In the Medical Product Communications draft guidance, FDA provides recommendations for manufacturers of drugs and medical devices on communications, including communications with health care providers, consumers and payors and in promotional materials, regarding information that is not included within the FDA-approved package labeling, but is consistent with that labeling.

In determining whether information provided by manufacturers is consistent with the product’s approved labeling, FDA will consider three factors. First, FDA will compare the information to the conditions of use in the approved labeling. To comply with the recommendations in the guidance, the information must relate to an indication, patient population, and dosing and administration instructions within the scope of those set forth in approved label, and it must not be inconsistent with any use limitation or directions for handling or using the product in the approved labeling. Second, the suggestions regarding the use of the product in the HCEI information must not increase the potential for patient harm relative to information in the approved labeling or otherwise adversely impact the risk-benefit profile of the product. Finally, the directions for use in the approved labeling must allow the product to be used safely and effectively under the conditions of use suggested in the HCEI information distributed by the manufacturer. If all three of these factors are met, FDA will not view that information, alone, as evidence that the manufacturer intends to promote the drug or device for a new intended use.

To assist manufacturers in applying these factors, the guidance includes examples of the types of communications that are, and are not, consistent with a product’s approved labeling. In describing the types of evidence required to support the disclosure of information that is not included in, but is consistent with, the approved labeling, FDA states that the data must be scientifically and statistically sound to support the representations made by the manufacturer to avoid being false or misleading, but because the safety and effectiveness of the product for the approved indication has already been established, the evidence need not meet the applicable approval or clearance standard for the product. For drug products, this means that two adequate and well-controlled clinical trials will not be required. The evidence must, however, be accurately characterized and any material limitations on the evidence must be clearly and prominently disclosed in language appropriate for the intended audience.

FDA also has, within a ten day period, released two other pieces of information relating to drug and device manufacturers’ communications regarding their products. On January 9, FDA issued a Final Rule on Clarification of When Products Made or Derived From Tobacco Are Regulated as Drugs, Devices, or Combination Products; Amendments to Regulations Regarding “Intended Uses”, clarifying the Agency’s position that a determination of a regulated product’s intended use may be determined based upon the totality of the evidence of the manufacturer’s objective intended use of the product, including the manufacturer’s knowledge of the product’s actual use for an off-label indication in practice.[1]  FDA states in the preamble to the Final Rule, however, that it will not bring an enforcement action based solely on a manufacturer’s knowledge that an approved or cleared product is being prescribed or used for an unapproved use.

The Proposed Rule released in September 2015 deleted from the drug and device intended use regulations at 21 CFR §§ 201.128 and 801.4 a reference to a manufacturer’s knowledge of off-label uses, specifically the statement that “[Intended use] may be shown by the circumstances that the article is, with the knowledge of such persons or their representatives, offered and used for a purpose for which it is neither labeled nor advertised.” Many commenters on the Proposed Rule had interpreted that deletion as excluding a manufacturer’s knowledge of off-label use from the evidence that may be relied upon to establish a manufacturer’s intent to promote a drug or device for an off-label use. The preamble to the Final Rule expresses FDA’s disagreement, and clarifies that FDA proposed deleting that language merely to avoid a potential misinterpretation that a manufacturer’s knowledge of an unapproved use of an approved or cleared medical product, without more, automatically triggers a requirement for that manufacturer to provide additional labeling for the unapproved use. FDA asserts that its intent was not to change the scope of information that could be relied upon as evidence of a manufacturer’s intended use of the product.  The amended language set forth in the Final Rule provides that “”intended use may be shown, for example, by circumstances in which the article is, with the knowledge of such person or their representatives, offered and used for a purpose for which it is neither labeled nor advertised.”

In the preamble to the Final Rule, in response to comments that existing First Amendment jurisprudence restricts FDA from bringing enforcement actions based on truthful and non-misleading speech regarding a product’s off-label use, FDA states that it is separately examining its rules and policies relating to firm communications regarding unapproved uses of approved and cleared medical products, and while those broader policy considerations are being addressed separately from the Final Rule, “[n]evertheless, it is important to note here that we do not agree with the assertion that the current case law allows FDA to consider speech as evidence of intended use only when it is false or misleading.” FDA cites recent Second Circuit precedent[2] to support its view that the Second Circuit’s 2014 Caronia decision does not foreclose the government’s ability to prove misbranding using promotional speech as evidence that a drug is intended for an off-label use. FDA goes on to describe the significant public health considerations that the Agency believes support its approach to limiting manufacturer communications regarding off-label uses of their approved or cleared products.

FDA makes similar assertions in a document posted to the docket for the November public hearing on Manufacturer Communications Regarding Unapproved Uses of Approved or Cleared Medical Products entitled, “Memorandum: Public Health Interests and First Amendment Considerations Regarding Unapproved Uses of Approved or Cleared Medical Products.” In a notice published in the Federal Register on January 19, 2017, FDA announces that it has reopened the comment period that was opened in connection with the public hearing on off-label communications that took place November 9 and 10, 2016 to allow interested parties an opportunity for additional comment based on the content of the memorandum and the two draft guidances discussed above. In this memorandum, FDA describes in detail the public policy considerations guiding its assessment of its restrictions on off-label communications, and the legal authority it believes supports its restriction of these communications and their use as evidence of intended use to support misbranding actions. FDA also describes its views on several alternative approaches to addressing the public health interests at issue.  FDA seeks additional comments on its views expressed in the memorandum and potential alternative approaches to regulating manufacturer communications regarding off-label indications of their approved products.  The docket will remain open until April 19, 2017.

[1] In addition to its provisions specific to determinations of when a tobacco product will be regulated as a drug or device, the Final Rule also amended intended use regulations at 21 CFR §§ 201.128 and 801.4.

[2] United States ex rel. Polansky v. Pfizer, Inc., 822 F.3d 613 n.2 (2d Cir.2016).

Stakeholder Agendas in the Washington Transition: 5 Takeaways for Converting Ideas into Technically Effective Proposals

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As the transition in Washington moves into high gear this month, it’s not just the new Administration and Congress that are putting in place plans for policy and legislation; stakeholders are busy creating agendas, too.

Many stakeholder agendas will seek to affect how government addresses such prominent health care issues as the Affordable Care Act, Medicare entitlements, fraud-and-abuse policies, FDA user fees, and drug pricing. There will be a myriad of stakeholder ideas, cutting a variety of directions, all framed with an eye to the new political terrain.

But whatever policies a stakeholder advocates, ideas must be translated into a form that that the political system can digest. For this to occur, an important technical conversion must take place; words must be conjured and organized so that desired policy can become legal reality.  This is no easy task, and stakeholders should proceed thoughtfully.

Here are five takeaways for making proposals concrete and workable:

1. Butterfly Effect

A “simple” contract (to buy a house, say) can end up getting pretty complicated, even when the stated rights and obligations apply to no more than two parties. In contrast, a policy proposal typically seeks to set arrangements for a broad array of parties (perhaps a whole economic sector) and thus will usually involve substantial complexity.

The large number of parties potentially affected means that even the most minor-seeming policy adjustment can have large, unintended, and unpredictable results – not dissimilar from how the proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wings can start the chain reaction that leads to a distant hurricane.

2. Pre-Drafting Steps

Taming the butterfly effect should begin before putting pen to paper. It starts with a clear view of the problem to be solved and the ways to solve it.  Notably, the legislative drafters available to Congress place some considerable emphasis on the steps that precede actual drafting.

For example, the House Legislative Counsel’s Office recommends use of a pre-drafting checklist that includes questions like these:  What is the planned policy’s scope (expressed as populations or subjects)?   Who will administer the policy?  Who will enforce it?  When should the policy take effect (and are transition rules needed)?  Each of these questions contains multiple sub-questions.

Similarly, the Senate Legislative Counsel’s Office points out that most legislated policies build on prior statutes. As such, it is important to know how new provisions will harmonize with — or will override — previously adopted language.  Making these judgments requires a solid grasp of existing legal authorities and ways these authorities have been interpreted.

3. Words on the Page

Translating concepts into words is a specialized task, for ultimately the words must be “right” – they must be technically sufficient to effectuate the policy intended.

It is not news that Congresses, Presidents, and courts sometimes have different views on the meaning of statutes, regulations, and other types of policy issuances. In theory, the drafting curative is to make the words so clear that only a single meaning is possible.  But realistically, legal contention often comes with the territory of a controversial policy, and so stakeholders should at a minimum avoid such unforced errors as these:

  • Obvious mistakes – e.g., purporting to amend a U.S. code title that has not been enacted into positive law;
  • Wrong law – e.g., confusing the statute that enacts new language with the statute that the new language amends;
  • Wrong time – e.g., getting the words right but putting them into effect for an unintended time period;
  • Imprecise labels – e.g., referring to concepts or parties via shorthand phrases similar to, but not identical to, defined terms; and
  • Vague references — e.g., omitting enough key details to confer unintended discretion on an agency or administrative official.

4. Document Silos

Today’s integrated world doesn’t look kindly on silos, but, in the specialized context of Washington policy development, they can be a helpful check on the temptation to combine technical drafting with political messaging.

The desire to combine these two forms of communication is understandable, for it is an appealing notion that policy proposals be “user friendly” so they can be quickly scanned for substantive gist. In fact, however, the practice is dilutive and dangerous; it can put the wrong words on the page and undermine policy intent.

A better course is for stakeholders to manage separately siloed sets of documents that, while consistent, operate at different levels of specificity. One silo should be reserved for the technically rigorous proposals that effect legal authority and a separate silo for “plain English” issue briefs, fact sheets, and other materials that summarize the authority.

5. Plug & Play

Washington policy debates are less often set battles, more often fast-moving skirmishes. Such places a premium on ability to adapt as new ideas emerge, political signals morph, and coalitions shift.  For the task of converting ideas into policies, there are at least two implications.

First, stakeholders should be prepared to think and draft in modules – in discrete chunks of policy that can be embedded in one or more larger proposals. In Congress, stakeholder-originated ideas are more likely to emerge as legislative amendments than as free-standing bills.

Second, stakeholders should be ready to iterate quickly as debate advances. Feedback from reviewers will often focus on proposal summaries because they are easier to read and understand.  But changes in response to comments must also be reflected in the technical proposals themselves.  Tight deadlines are the norm, so separately siloing the two types of documents (see above) will help speed an effective response when political opportunity strikes.

The False Claims Act Under a Trump Administration – What Does Attorney General Nominee Sessions Think?

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As discussed previously in this blog, efforts to curb fraud, waste and abuse are generally “bi-partisan.” Given the significant monetary recoveries the Government enjoys through enforcement of the federal False Claims Act (“FCA”), we have predicted that efforts in this arena will continue under a Trump administration. However, this is dependent, in part, on the priorities of the new administration and the resources it devotes in this arena. To this end, the testimony of Attorney General nominee Sessions during his confirmation hearing on January 10th may have given us some insight into how he views the FCA.

Notably, as part of his opening testimony, Attorney General nominee Sessions said:

“Further, this government must improve its ability to protect the United States Treasury from waste, fraud, and abuse. This is a federal responsibility. We cannot afford to lose a single dollar to corruption and you can be sure that if I am confirmed, I will make it a high priority of the Department to root out and prosecute fraud in federal programs and to recover any monies lost due to fraud or false claims.”

During questioning by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R. IA.), Sessions elaborated on his intent to focus on the FCA. When asked whether he would “pledge to vigorously enforce the False Claims Act and devote adequate resources to investigating and prosecuting False Claims Act cases,” Sessions testified:

“In the qui tam provisions and the part of that, I’m aware of those. I think they are valid and an effective method of rooting out fraud and abuse. I even filed one myself one time as a private lawyer…. It has saved this country lots of money and probably has caused companies to be more cautious because they can have a whistleblower that would blow the whistle on them if they try to do something that’s improper. So, I think it’s been a very healthy thing…”

In addition, after commenting that, in his opinion, some qui tam cases remain under seal for an “awfully long time,” Sessions testified that, if confirmed, he would provide Congress with “regular timely updates on the status of…. False Claims Act cases including statistics as to how many are under seal and the average length of seal time.”

Sessions’ testimony seems to have offered something to those on “both sides” of the FCA. His statements suggest that he recognizes the value of the FCA and its qui tam provisions; indeed, we learned that he even brought a qui tam case when he was in private practice. However, his testimony also reflects concern about unreasonably long seal periods, which are a significant problem for defendants in FCA cases. Extended seal periods plainly provide a unilateral litigation advantage to the Government and qui tam Relators by allowing extensive time to investigate while providing defendants no corresponding opportunity. Instead, extended seal periods often force defendants to be relegated to face aged claims once they are finally able to defend themselves. (Most FCA actions are filed under whistleblower, or qui tam, provisions. According to the Department of Justice, whistleblowers filed 702 qui tam suits in fiscal year 2016—an average of 13.5 new cases every week.) Only time will tell if a Justice Department under Attorney General Sessions will press to expedite consideration of FCA cases and improve the “playing field” in the process.

New Federal and State Initiatives Seek to Combat Antimicrobial Resistance

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Recent federal and state legislative efforts signal an increased focus on a significant and largely underappreciated public health threat – antimicrobial resistance (i.e., when a microorganism (such as a bacteria or virus) is able to resist the effects of medications such as antibiotics and antivirals, causing such medications to be ineffective). The results of a 2014 study underscore the magnitude of the threat of so-called “superbugs,” estimating that the number of deaths worldwide attributable to antimicrobial resistance will reach 10 million by 2050.  By comparison, the same study projected 8.2 million deaths from cancer, and 1.2 million deaths from traffic accidents by 2050.  Legislative efforts to address antimicrobial resistance span from encouraging development of new pathways to market for antimicrobial drugs to expanding data collection and monitoring efforts to better understand the scope of the problem.  The combination of new data and less-restrictive pathways to market simultaneously provide pharmaceutical companies with a faster entry into the market for antimicrobial drugs and a better understanding by local health departments and hospitals of the need for new drugs to combat resistant strains of microorganisms.

Federal Initiatives

On the federal side, the 21st Century Cures Act (the “Act”), signed into law by President Obama on December 13, 2016, includes several measures related to antimicrobial resistance.  For example, the Act creates a new approval pathway for “limited population drugs,” which are antibacterial or antifungal drugs “intended to treat a serious or life-threatening infection in a limited population of patients with unmet needs.” While the Act allows FDA to approve limited population drugs with less data than typically would be required, the approval is restricted to “the intended limited population,” and the manufacturer must meet additional labeling requirements to inform physicians of the drug’s limited approved use.  In addition, manufacturers of drugs approved through this pathway are required to submit any promotional materials to FDA at least 30 days before they plan to use them.

While adding specific labeling requirements for new drugs approved for limited populations, the Act also changes labeling requirements for susceptibility test interpretive criteria. Susceptibility test interpretive criteria includes the myriad of testing options used to determine whether a patient is infected with a specific microorganism or class of microorganism that can effectively be treated by a drug.  The Act requires pharmaceutical manufacturers to replace the currently existing susceptibility test interpretive criteria from the drug’s packaged insert or labeling with a reference to a FDA website to be built where such criteria for all drugs will be held.  Manufacturers have one year from the day the website is established to move its susceptibility test interpretive criteria to the so-called “Interpretive Criteria Website.”

The Act also increases monitoring and reporting of antimicrobial drug use and antimicrobial resistance at federal healthcare facilities, like VA hospitals and facilities run through the Indian Health Service or the Department of Defense. Further, it requires annual federal data reporting on aggregate national and regional trends related to antimicrobial resistance. A broad base of reliable data on antimicrobial resistance and the associated morbidity and mortality does not currently exist. However, along with the federal government, certain states are also making efforts to improve data collection in this space.

State Initiatives

Many states receive funding from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to collect data about patients with extremely resistant strains of microoganisms, like carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriacea, or “CRE” – a bacteria that kills an estimated 600 Americans each year. The Illinois Department of Health, for example, developed a registry in 2014 that tracks positive lab tests for extremely drug-resistant organisms, including CRE.  Illinois began tracking this information following a deadly outbreak of CRE in 2013.  Health care facilities participating in the registry receive alerts when an infected patient is transferred in and must report CRE-positive culture results of patients within seven calendar days.  The most recent annual report shows a 7% increase in overall cases; however, a recent article posits that the increase may be somewhat attributable to better reporting efforts by hospitals gaining experience identifying CRE.  Similar programs exist in many states, but these programs typically do not track the outcomes of CRE cases.

A recently proposed bill in California (California Senate Bill 43) would require hospitals to include information within death certificates that identifies whether “any antimicrobial-resistant infection…was a factor in the death.”  Specifically, the bill would require the “attending physician [who] is legally obligated to file a certificate of death” to determine whether, in the physician’s professional judgment, an antimicrobial-resistant infection was a factor in the patient’s death.  State law already mandates tracking of over 80 communicable diseases, like HIV and Hepatitis (A-E), but only tracks antibiotic-resistant infections of VRE and MRSA if they are contracted while a patient is already in the hospital.

Given the magnitude of the potential threat, it is reassuring that legislative initiatives are showing an increased focus on antimicrobial resistance. New pathways to market for antimicrobial drugs and increased public awareness of the rising threat of “superbugs” should lead to additional innovation by drug manufacturers.  The limited population pathway may also cause some manufacturers to reassess their pipelines and strategies to market drugs toward limited populations.  For manufacturers facing expensive and burdensome FDA requirements to market new antimicrobials to a general population, the limited population pathway may provide a cheaper and faster entry into the market.  Early entry into the market can then fund additional efforts expand the label beyond a limited population.

Court Issues Nationwide Injunction Prohibiting Enforcement of Section 1557 Provisions Relating to Gender Identity and Termination of Pregnancy – But Other Provisions Still Can Be Enforced

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On December 31, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas issued a nationwide preliminary injunction that prohibits the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from enforcing certain provisions of its regulations implementing Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act that prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity or termination of pregnancy. This ruling, in Franciscan Alliance v. Burwell (Case No. 7:16-cv-00108-O), a case filed by the Franciscan Alliance (a Catholic hospital system), a Catholic medical group, a Christian medical association, and eight states in which the plaintiffs allege, among other allegations, that the Section 1557 regulations force them to provide gender transition services and abortion services against their religious beliefs and medical judgment in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”).

By way of background, the Section 1557 regulations prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identify, which regulations define to mean “an internal sense of gender, which may be male, female, neither, or a combination of male and female, and which may be different from an individual’s sex assigned at birth.”[i] The regulations prohibit a categorical insurance coverage exclusion or limitation for all health services related to gender transition and requires providers to provide transition-related procedures if the provider performs an analogous service in a different context. The plaintiffs also alleged that because they perform certain procedures for miscarriages, the Section 1557 regulations will require them to perform such procedures for abortions to avoid discriminating on the basis of termination of pregnancy.

The court held that the Section 1557 regulations failed to incorporate the exceptions for religious institutions and abortions services that Congress provided in Title IX. The court also found that Title IX, which is incorporated by Section 1557 statute, only prohibits discrimination on the basis of biological sex. The court further noted that “the government’s own health insurance programs, Medicare and Medicaid, do not mandate coverage for transition surgeries; the military’s health insurance program, TRICARE, specifically excludes coverage for transition surgeries. . .”[ii]

Specifically, the court concluded that “the regulation violates the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”) by contradicting existing law and exceeding statutory authority, and the regulation likely violates the [RFRA] as applied to Private Plaintiffs.” The court also agreed that the plaintiffs would likely suffer irreparable harm without the injunction as “one of the State Plaintiffs is already undergoing investigation by the HHS’s OCR, and entities similarly situated to Private Plaintiffs have already been sued under the Rule since it took partial effect on May 18, 2016″ (emphasis added). Conversely, the court found that HHS will not suffer any harm by delaying implementation of this portion of the Section 1557 regulations. It should be noted that this is a ruling granting a preliminary injunction and a final ruling on the merits of a permanent injunction is still to come.

While an HHS appeal of this order would normally be expected, the impending change of Administration—including new leadership at HHS and an expected early Congressional push to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act—makes it very uncertain whether an appeal will be filed, or ruled upon, prior to any possible changes in the regulatory scheme or underlying statute.

Health care entities should take note, however, that the remaining provisions of the Section 1557 regulations, including those that prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, race, color, age, national origin, or sex (other than gender identity), are not impacted by the nationwide injunction and HHS can still enforce such provisions. Indeed, HHS has issued a broadcast email specifically stating that:

“[OCR] will continue to enforce the law—including its important protections against discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, or disability and its provisions aimed at enhancing language assistance for people with limited English proficiency, as well as other sex discrimination provisions—to the full extent consistent with the Court’s order.”

Health care entities should closely monitor this area of law for further developments and ensure that their operations are compliant with the remaining provisions of the Section 1557 regulations.

Further information regarding Section 1557 and its accompanying regulations can be found in EBG Client Alerts and Webinars.

[i] 45 C.F.R. § 92.4

[ii] The court cited Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751, 2780 (2014). The Supreme Court will consider whether Title IX covers gender identity in Gloucester Cty. School Bd. V. G.G., Sup. Ct. No. 16-273, during the current term.

FY 2016 False Claims Act Recoveries: Government Enforcement Remains Lucrative and a Continued Source of Risk for Health Care Entities—But Will This Change in a Trump Administration?

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The federal government continues to secure significant recoveries through settlements and court awards related to its enforcement of the False Claims Act (FCA), particularly resulting from actions brought by qui tam relators. In fiscal year (FY) 2016, the federal government reported that it recovered $2.5 billion from the health care industry. Of that $2.5 billion, $1.2 billion was recovered from the drug and medical device industry.  Another $360 million was recovered from hospitals and outpatient clinics.

Government Intervention Drives Recoveries

The FY 2016 FCA statistics reflect that more than 97% of the recoveries from qui tam cases resulted from matters in which the government elected to intervene and pursue directly. Government intervention remains a real danger to health care entities.

However, more than 80% of new FCA matters were filed by qui tam relators; relator share awards reached almost $520 million in FY 2016. The financial incentives to pursue these matters are significant and well recognized; last year, the number of new qui tam FCA cases was the second highest since 1987.

Enforcement Climate Became Worse for Individuals in FY 2016—and Will Likely Continue

The government’s focus on individual liability, as reflected in the “Yates Memo,” is expected to continue. This focus on individual accountability has recently resulted in substantial FCA recoveries from physicians, a former hospital CEO, a nursing home CFO, and even the Chair of a board of directors.[1]  On the administrative side, such focus has resulted in the 20-year exclusion of a physician specializing in urogynecology whom the government alleged billed for services not performed or not medically necessary. Indeed, this focus continues: just last week, the government filed a FCA complaint against a mental health and substance abuse clinic and its owner in his individual capacity.

Regulatory Changes in 2016 Created More Financial Exposure

The monetary exposure faced by health care industry participants under the FCA is increasing. In June, the Department of Justice released an interim final rule increasing the minimum per-claim penalty under Section 3729(a)(1) of the FCA from $5,500 to $10,781 and increasing the maximum per-claim penalty from $11,000 to $21,563.

The Government’s Use of Technology

The use of technology has markedly enhanced the government’s recovery efforts. Federal and state governments, along with some commercial insurers, are investing in the use of predictive analytics that can analyze large volumes of health care data to identify fraud, waste, and abuse. Notably, the government reportedly enjoyed an $11.60 return for each dollar it spent on its investment in these technologies in 2015.  The use of such technology is expected to continue under the new administration.

The Risk of Enforcement Is Real

The FY 2016 FCA statistics reflect the government’s belief that devoting time and resources to FCA cases makes “good business sense.” This realization is very unlikely to change. Health care entities—as well as individuals—must be alert to potential violations and have strong compliance functions to deal with compliance-related matters in a way that prevents claims and litigation.

Enforcement in a Trump Administration and Opportunities to Reshape the Landscape

Enthusiasm for efforts to curb fraud, waste, and abuse is bipartisan. As a result, government enforcement is likely to stay on its present course with the incoming administration, in good part due to the high return on investment in government fraud investigations and no public policy outcry to reduce such enforcement efforts.

While the growth of the federal government’s investment in enforcement efforts might slow due to both the anticipated federal worker hiring freeze and President-elect Trump’s pledge to reduce regulations, health care entities should not ignore the real risk that they face in this area.

A new administration, however, may bring opportunities to reshape part of the enforcement landscape. President-elect Trump promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”). Included within the ACA were several provisions that made it easier for qui tam relators to bring FCA cases.[2] While it is likely that such provisions—which plainly benefit the government—would be pressed for exemption from any repeal, this does present the potential for legislative changes beneficial to potential FCA defendants. Additionally, given the real likelihood of multiple U.S. Supreme Court appointments, along with the need to fill the more than 100 current federal district court vacancies, more legal challenges to efforts to expand the reach of the FCA can be anticipated.

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[1] See Press Release, Department of Justice, North American Health Care Inc. to Pay $28.5 Million to Settle Claims for Medically Unnecessary Rehabilitation Therapy Services (Sept. 19, 2016), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/north-american-health-care-inc-pay-285-million-settle-claims-medically-unnecessary; Press Release, Department of Justice, Former Chief Executive of South Carolina Hospital Pays $1 Million and Agrees to Exclusion to Settle Claims Related to Illegal Payments to Referring Physicians (Sept. 27, 2016), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/former-chief-executive-south-carolina-hospital-pays-1-million-and-agrees-exclusion-settle.

[2] The ACA impacted the FCA by narrowing the Public Disclosure Bar (31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(4)(A)), expanding the scope of the “original source” exception for the Public Disclosure Bar (31 U.S.C. § 3730(e)(4)(B)), relaxing intent requirement for violations of the Anti-Kickback Statute (42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(h)), and providing that claims resulting from Anti-Kickback Statute violations would also be considered false claims (42 U.S.C. § 1320a-7b(g)).

Top Five Takeaways from MedPAC’s Meeting on Medicare Issues and Policy Developments—December 2016

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The Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (“MedPAC”) met in Washington, DC, on December 8-9, 2016. The purpose of this and other public meetings of MedPAC is for the commissioners to review the issues and challenges facing the Medicare program and then make policy recommendations to Congress. MedPAC issues these recommendations in two annual reports, one in March and another in June. MedPAC’s meetings can provide valuable insight into the state of Medicare, the direction of the program moving forward, and the content of MedPAC’s next report to Congress. At the annual December meeting MedPAC reviews draft recommendations to Congress regarding Medicare payment policy. MedPAC reviews and formalizes these recommendations during its January meeting.

As thought leaders in health law, Epstein Becker Green monitors MedPAC developments to gage the direction of the health care marketplace. Our five biggest takeaways from the October meeting are as follows:

1. MedPAC discusses recommending that Congress update Medicare inpatient and outpatient payments by the amounts specified in current law.

MedPAC reviewed the inpatient and outpatient hospital payment adequacy. In doing so MedPAC reviewed beneficiary access to care, provider access to capital, quality of care, and the impact of cost growth on hospital margin. MedPAC found that beneficiary access to care is good, provider access to capital is strong, quality is improving, and that margin for inpatient and outpatient hospital services in Medicare was at 9%. This led the MedPAC make a draft recommendation that Congress update the inpatient and outpatient payments as currently specified in existing law.

2. MedPAC finds annual volume growth in the clinician services highest in five year period, but that beneficiary access to clinician services remained comparable to private health insurance.

In reviewing payment adequacy to physicians and other health professionals MedPAC staff found that the annual volume growth in clinician services was higher in 2015 than it was in the period from 2010-2014. The staff also found that the growth in services reflected a shift from freestanding offices to hospital based settings. However, despite the growth in volume MedPAC also found that Medicare beneficiaries have comparable access to clinician services as those with private insurance. Based on this MedPAC’s draft recommendation to Congress is that they should increase payment rates for physician and other health professional services as specified in current law.

3. MedPAC considers recommending changes to how Medicare pays for skilled nursing facility (SNF) services.

MedPAC’s review of the current SNF payment model found that Medicare fee-for-service payments remain higher then Medicare Advantage payments for services and that differences in beneficiary population across payment models does not explain the payment differences. They also found that the current payment model has resulted in a wide disparity in SNF margins partially due to the current payment model favoring intensive therapy over medically complex care. MedPac’s draft recommendation is for Congress to eliminate the market basket for 2018 and 2019 and direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to revise the prospective payment system for SNFs.

4. MedPAC considers recommending Congress eliminate the update to Medicare hospice payments for 2018.

MedPAC review of the Medicare hospice benefit found that the number of hospice providers has continued to increase and that the number of Medicare beneficiaries utilizing hospice has also increased. Medicare hospice providers saw a marginal profit of 11% in 2014. Given the strength of marginal profit and the increase of in the number of hospice providers MedPAC’s draft recommendation is that Congress should eliminate the update to the hospice payment rates for fiscal year 2018.

5. MedPAC considers recommending changes to Medicare’s home health payment model, including reducing the total payment level.

MedPAC found that Medicare home health benefits have resulted in a provider margin of better than 16% in the 2001 to 2014 period. MedPAC also found that the current payment model may be creating inefficiencies in treatment by incentivize multiple therapy visits per episode. To address these areas MedPAC’s draft recommendation is that Congress should reduce payments by 5% in 2018, and implement a two year rebasing of the payment system, beginning in 2019. Further, MedPAC draft recommendation is that Congress should direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services to revise the PPS to eliminate the use of therapy visits as a factor in payment determinations, concurrent with rebasing.

The Future Impact of Populism on Drug Pricing Reform

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In 2016, the populist trend in American politics was an undeniable factor behind Trump’s election victory as well as the ascendancy of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren within the Democratic Party.  During upcoming months, industry observers will be looking for signs as to whether drug pricing is an area in which both parties can agree on instituting significant legislative action at the state and federal levels.  The nature and shape of any such reforms will be highly consequential for the U.S. pharmaceutical industry, which has served as a prime source of innovation in medicine.  The question going forward is whether cool-headed reform that facilitates patient access to drugs without stymying pharmaceutical R&D investment can be achieved in an era of fervent populism and discontent over rising healthcare costs.

For more, see Politics, Populism, and the Future of Prescription Drug Pricing Reform in PharmaExec.com.

In First Speech Since the Election, DOJ Deputy Attorney General, Sally Yates, “Optimistic” That Corporate Misconduct Will Remain a DOJ Priority Under New Administration

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As many pundits speculate regarding the future of the Yates Memo[1] in a Trump administration, on Wednesday, November 30, 2016, Department of Justice (“DOJ”) Deputy Attorney General, Sally Q. Yates, provided her first comments since the election.  The namesake of the well-known, “Yates Memo,” Yates spoke at the 33rd Annual International Conference on Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in Washington, D.C. and provided her perspective on the future of DOJ’s current focus on individual misconduct.

Yates, who has served at the DOJ for over twenty-seven years, stated that while the DOJ has endured many transitions in leadership during her tenure, the ideology of the DOJ with respect to general deterrence as well as enforcement of corporate misconduct has remained unchanged. Thus, Yates predicted that the incoming administration under President-elect Donald Trump will maintain the DOJ’s current commitment to pursing potential individuals while combating alleged cases of corporate fraud and wrongdoing, proclaiming:

In 51 days, a new team will be running the department, and it will be up to them to decide whether they want to continue the policies that we’ve implemented in recent years. But I’m optimistic. Holding individuals accountable for corporate wrongdoing isn’t ideological; it’s good law enforcement.[2]

Given the length of time that white collar investigations typically take, Yates noted there are a significant number of corporate investigations that began after the issuance of the Yates Memo in September 2015 that will not resolve until well after the new administration takes control. Yates also stated that she expects that the cases already in the pipeline will continue being pursued, and as a result, she anticipates that “higher percentage of those cases [will be] accompanied by criminal or civil actions against the responsible individuals.”[3]

In recent years, the Department of Justice has accelerated its emphasis on the investigation and prosecution of healthcare-related cases.[4]  In the civil realm, since release of the Yates Memo in September 2015, there has been a significant increase in False Claims Act[5] settlements containing cooperation provisions.[6] In the criminal side of the house, since the release of the Yates Memo, DOJ has brought high-profile indictments alleging violations of federal law including conspiracy to commit health care fraud, violations of the anti-kickback statute, money laundering, and aggravated identity theft, and involving a variety of health care-related services such as home health care, psychotherapy, physical and occupational therapy, durable medical equipment, and compounding prescription drugs schemes.  Most recently, on December 1, 2016, an indictment was unsealed in the Northern District of Texas charging 21 people, including the founders and investors of the physician-owned Forest Park Medical Center (“FPMC”) in Dallas, other executives at the hospital, and physicians, surgeons, and others affiliated with the hospital,[7]  with allegedly participating in a $200 million bribery and kick-back scheme focused on inducing surgeons to use the FPMC facilities.

Even before the Yates memorandum explicitly set forth guidance regarding parallel investigations, over the past few years DOJ already was increasing coordination between civil and criminal attorneys running parallel health care-related investigations with the goal of establishing collaboration at the very inception of an investigation. One U.S. Attorney’s Office, the District of New Jersey, even has co-located criminal and civil assistants dedicated to investigating health care fraud, who are supervised by the same AUSA to facilitate civil and criminal investigations, increase coordination and “maximize appropriate deterrence.”[8]

Notably, in June 2016, DOJ and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced a nationwide sweep of health care fraud civil and criminal cases.  Billed as the largest health care-related take-down in history, and led by DOJ’s Medicare Fraud Strike Force[9] in 36 federal districts, the takedown resulted in criminal and civil charges being filed against 301 individuals, including 61 doctors, nurses, and other licensed medical professionals, for their alleged participation in health care fraud schemes involving approximately $900 million in false billings.[10] [11]

Based on Yates’s comments on November 30, 2016, it can be anticipated that there will be a continued effort by the DOJ to combat corporate misconduct by focusing on individual accountability for alleged wrongdoers. Therefore, health care companies will need to remain diligent in maintaining sufficient compliance and corporate policies, including providing adequate training for executives and employees on the Yates Memorandum, as well as conducting thorough internal investigations, and to identify potential instances of corporate misconduct.[12] Since a centerpiece of the Yates Memo is the disclosure of individual wrongdoing in order to receive credit for cooperating with an investigation, health care-related companies must develop ways to identify individuals involved in potential fraudulent schemes, and the extent of each individual’s potential involvement in wrongdoing, to ensure they receive credit for cooperation. As Yates’s concluded on November 30th, “In the days ahead, this institution – and those who lead it – will continue the hard work of rooting out corruption here and abroad. And we will remain determined to protecting and strengthening our values of justice, fairness, and the rule of law. That has always been, and will always be, at the core of the DOJ.”[13] Thus, there is no indication of a DOJ slow-down any time soon, and based on recent high-profile DOJ enforcement efforts, the health care industry will not be excluded from DOJ’s focus on individual accountability any time soon either.

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[1] Sally Quillian Yates, Deputy Attorney Gen., DOJ, “Individual Accountability for Corporate Wrongdoing,” (“Yates Memo”), (Sept. 9, 2015) The Yates Memo, released by the DOJ in September 2015, sets forth six specific steps for DOJ attorneys to focus on while assessing potential corporate wrongdoing:  (1) in order to quality for any cooperation credit, corporations must provide to the Department all relevant facts relating to the individuals responsible for the misconduct; (2) criminal and civil corporate investigations should focus on individuals from the inception of the investigation; (3) criminal and civil attorneys handling corporate investigations should be in routine communication with one another; (4) absent extraordinary circumstances or approved departmental policy, the Department will not release culpable individuals from civil or criminal liability when resolving a matter with a corporation; (5) DOJ attorneys should not resolve matters with a corporation without a clear plan to resolve related individual cases, and should memorialize any declinations as to individuals in such cases; and (6) civil attorneys should consistently focus on individuals as well as the company and evaluate whether to bring suit against an individual based on considerations beyond that individual’s ability to pay.

[2] Sally Quillian Yates, Deputy Attorney Gen., DOJ, Remarks at the 33rd Annual Int’l Conference on Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (Nov. 30, 2016).

[3] Id.

[4] DOJ, Facts and Statistics¸ (June 9, 2015), https://www.justice.gov/criminal-fraud/facts-statistics.

[5] The False Claims Act, 21 U.S.C. § 3729(2)(B).

[6] Eric Toper, “DOJ Increasingly Demanding Corporate Cooperation in FCA Settlements After Yates Memo,” Bloomberg BNA, (May 25, 2016), https://www.bna.com/doj-increasingly-demanding-n57982072932/.

[7] Shelby Livingston, “Execs, Physicians at Doc-Owned Luxury Hospital Chain Indicted in Alleged Kickback Scheme,” Modern Healthcare (Dec. 6, 2016), http://www.modernhealthcare.com/article/20161206/NEWS/161209950/execs-physicians-at-doc-owned-luxury-hospital-chain-indicted-in. See https://www.justice.gov/usao-ndtx/pr/executives-surgeons-physicians-and-others-affiliated-forest-park-medical-center-fpmc (press release and indictment).

[8] Gabriel Imperator, Combating Healthcare Fraud in New Jersey: An Interview with Paul J. Fishman, Compliance Today 16-22 (Oct. 2015).

[9] DOJ, June 2016 Takedown, (June 22, 2016), https://www.justice.gov/criminal-fraud/health-care-fraud-unit/june-2016-takedown (The Medicare Fraud Strike Force are part of the Health Care Fraud Prevention & Enforcement Action Team (“HEAT”), a joint initiative announced in May 2009 between the DOJ and HHS to focus their efforts to prevent and deter fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws around the country. Since its inception in March 2007 it has charged over 2,900 defendants who have falsely billed the Medicare program over $8.9 billion).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] For more information please view: EBG’s Individual Accountability in Health Care Fraud Enforcement: Thought Leaders in Health Law.

[13] Yates, supra note 2.