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In draft guidance on Drug and Device Manufacturer Communications with Payors, Formulary Committees and Similar Entities – Questions and Answers released on January 18, FDA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 In the draft guidance, FDA states that it will not object to manufacturers providing payors with “unbiased, factual, accurate and non-misleading” information regarding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).

On October 24, 2016 the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) in conjunction with the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (“CMS”) announced their intention to extend the Parallel Review pilot program indefinitely. The Parallel Review process is intended to provide timely feedback on clinical data requirements from FDA and CMS, and minimize the time required for receiving Medicare coverage nationally.  Sounds good.  So, why have so few manufacturers taken advantage of the program to date?

Despite its admirable goals, the current Parallel Review Process is too limited in scope and involves significant risks for manufacturers.

The standard process for obtaining Medicare coverage involves a sequential review. First, the device manufacturer must obtain approval, 510(k) clearance, or a de novo classification by the FDA.  After FDA approval, clearance, or de novo classification has been received, the manufacturer would seek coverage of the device or procedure using the device from CMS.  The manufacturer has the option of pursuing a National Coverage Determination (“NCD”) from CMS or a local coverage determination (“LCD”) from one or more of the Medicare Administrative Contractors (“MACs”).

In contrast, under the Parallel Review program, FDA and CMS simultaneously review manufacturer’s clinical trial design and data. Parallel Review is broken down into two stages: (1) the pivotal clinical trial design development stage, and (2) the concurrent evidentiary review stage. This two stage process is designed to allow manufacturers to minimize the likelihood of having to conduct additional trial(s) at a later date to meet CMS’s coverage requirements and shorten the overall timeline by having the agencies review the evidence simultaneously.  Although the goal is right, there are some disadvantages.

First, the Parallel Review program is limited to devices that are subject to pre-market approval or de novo classification. This is only a small portion of the market today. To put this in context, for every 140 510(k)s cleared by the FDA, one PMA is approved. In 2014, for example, there were 3203 510(k) clearances compared to only 42 PMAs and 28 de novo classifications. This means that the vast majority of devices will not be eligible for Parallel Review.

The more significant limitation is that the program requires the manufacturer to pursue a NCD. Deciding whether to pursue a NCD or LCD is a significant strategic consideration for any manufacturer.  Requiring that manufacturers apply for a NCD in the Parallel Review process  creates a high degree of risk that manufacturers – and their investors – may not be willing to take. As manufacturers are painfully aware, if CMS issues an unfavorable NCD, Medicare coverage is not available anywhere in the US. Because NCDs apply nationally to all MACs, the LCD option is foreclosed by an unfavorable NCD. Manufacturers can appeal, of course. But reopening an adverse NCD requires a significant amount of new data that may take years to compile through new clinical trials and there is no guarantee that a reopening will be granted or a favorable NCD will be published.  As a result, the lack of a choice between NCDs and LCDs can be a powerful deterrent to the Parallel Review program.

This risk is compounded by the fact that manufacturers are not allowed to drop out of the NCD process after the NCD tracking sheet has been publicly posted by CMS. Although the program is designed to provide early feedback, it is not unusual for CMS to have additional comments throughout the NCD process. Under the current Parallel Review process, manufacturers would be required to pursue NCDs even if they later received new information that made the NCD pathway less desirable.

It is also unclear if the program is appropriately resourced. The Parallel Review Pilot Program was limited to no more than five candidates per year. If the Agencies are serious about accelerating the path to market and payment for even this subcategory of devices, they need to allow more devices into the program and ensure that it is appropriately staffed to adequately address the needs of the participants.

While the Parallel Review program has its challenges, it is a step in the right direction. It just does not go far enough.  In order to have a more predictable and streamlined path to market, manufacturers need clear guidance on coverage criteria that can be leveraged nationally or locally.  Moreover, this guidance should apply to any device that required clinical evidence for coverage, regardless of whether the device is subject to a PMA, de novo or 510(k) clearance.

By focusing on broad based improvements to the coverage determination process, the Agencies would be able to provide patients with access to more devices more quickly using less Agency resources. If, for example, the time frame for the NCD and LCD process could be reduced by 20 days on average by providing more transparent guidance, and if you could apply that to half of the products that received approval, de novo classification, or clearance in 2014, that would save over 32,000 days of review time.  Admittedly, that is spread out over time and among manufacturers but the impact is not insubstantial.

FDA’s expansion of its program to include the opportunity to get feedback from private payors is also a positive development for manufacturers.   While it is still too early to know the impact of this program, commercial payors are another key piece of any manufacturer’s commercial strategy and must be considered early.

The decision to make the Parallel Review Program permanent no doubt reflects a commitment by FDA and CMS to working with manufacturers to help bring new devices to market in a faster and more efficient way.   However, opportunities remain to improve the program to expedite the process in a way that benefits industry – and patients – more broadly.

On August 31, 2016, FDA issued a notification of public hearing and request for comments on manufacturer communications regarding unapproved uses of approved or cleared medical products. The hearing will be held on November 9-10, 2016, and individuals wishing to present information at the hearing must register by October 19, 2016. The deadline for written comments is January 9, 2017.

In the notice, FDA posed a series of questions on which it is seeking input from a broad group of stakeholders, including manufacturers, health care providers, patient advocates, payors, academics and public interest groups. The topics on which FDA is seeking feedback are broad, but generally include:

  • The impact of off-label communications on public health,
  • The impact of changes in the health care system on the development of high-quality data on new uses of cleared or approved products,
  • Preserving incentives for manufacturers to seek approval for new uses, standards for truthful and non-misleading information,
  • Factors FDA should consider in monitoring and bringing enforcement actions based on off-label communications by manufacturers,
  • The extent to which data on which off-label communications are based should be publicly available, and
  • The changes FDA should consider to existing regulations governing manufacturers’ communications regarding their products.

This announcement comes in the wake of increased pressure from lawmakers, public interest groups, and regulated industry for FDA to issue guidance or propose regulatory changes to address recent litigation clarifying commercial speech protections for pharmaceutical and medical devices manufacturers under the First Amendment. On May 26, 2016, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell expressing concern that FDA had failed to clarify its current thinking on permissible manufacturer communications about uses of cleared and approved drugs and devices beyond the scope of their approved labeling. In the letter, the committee noted that FDA had neither issued guidance, including guidance on the permissible scope of “scientific exchange” that has been on FDA’s Guidance Agenda since 2014, nor conducted the public hearing it announced in May 2015 in connection with negotiations on the proposed 21st Century Cures bill.  The committee expressed concern that HHS was preventing FDA from issuing guidance or proposing new regulations to address a string of recent court victories for companies and individuals prosecuted for off-label communications about drug and medical devices.

In light of the current state of First Amendment commercial speech protections, which makes it clear that manufacturers’ truthful and non-misleading speech regarding their products is not unlawful even if that speech includes uses of their products that have not been approved or cleared by FDA, other stakeholders have actively encouraged FDA to issue guidance or modify its regulations to conform its regulatory oversight and enforcement activities to this reality. While stakeholder groups have been actively engaged on these issues for several years, recent examples include the February 2016 white paper issued by the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy outlining policy options for off-label communications, and the joint release by BIO and PhRMA of the Principles on Responsible Sharing of Truthful and Non-Misleading Information about Medicines with Health Care Professionals and Payers on July 27, 2016.

Despite pressure from interested stakeholders, FDA has yet to propose changes to its regulations or issue long-awaited guidance on a number of topics related to manufacturers’ communications regarding off-label uses of their cleared or approved products. While FDA’s 2016 Guidance Agenda, updated most recently on August 6, 2016, continues to promise guidance on manufacturer communications regarding unapproved, unlicensed, or uncleared uses of approved, licensed, or cleared human drugs, biologics, animal drugs and medical devices and the inclusion of health care economic information in promotional labeling and advertising for prescription drugs, among others, the post-election timeline for the public hearing and FDA’s ongoing collection of feedback announced in the August 31st notice may suggest that FDA is going back to the drawing board. In particular, the focus in the notice’s background discussion and in FDA’s questions on the public health impact of off-label communications may suggest that FDA is re-evaluating its position in response to the HHS concerns about broader dissemination of off-label by manufacturers that were highlighted in the Energy and Commerce committee letter.  While FDA’s notice and request for comments is a step in the right direction, it likely signals a further delay in the issuance of guidance that is needed to bring greater clarity to the currently unsettled regulatory framework for FDA’s oversight of manufacturers’ off-label communications, and a punting of these important decisions to the next administration.

On July 7, 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (“CMS”) imposed several administrative penalties on Theranos, a clinical laboratory company that proposed to revolutionize the clinical laboratory business by performing multiple blood tests using a few drops of blood drawn from a finger rather than from a traditional blood draw that relies on needles and tubes. However, after inspecting the laboratory, CMS concluded that the company failed to comply with federal law and regulations governing clinical laboratories and it posed an immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety. CMS has revoked the CLIA certification of the company’s California lab, imposed a civil monetary penalty of $10,000 per day until all deficiencies are corrected, barred Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement for its services, and excluded its founder and CEO from owning or operating a clinical laboratory for two years.

Although Theranos’s history has received an outsize amount of media attention, its experience with regulatory agencies highlights several important issues for start-up and emerging health care entities:

What Do Regulators Want?

It is no surprise that health care is one of the most highly regulated sectors of the U.S. economy, and that noncompliance with health care laws and regulations can result in penalties that can cripple an organization or force it to shut down. As a result, even in an environment that encourages innovation, health care organizations must understand the scope of regulatory oversight at the federal and state levels, and the range of remedies available to regulators for noncompliance. Every organization should also have a protocol in place for responding to regulatory inquiries or inspections.

What Do Health Care Providers and Payors Want?

Adopting a new health care technology is an intensely data-driven process. This is especially the case with clinical laboratories, which are subject to rigorous requirements for proficiency, quality assurance, and training. This burden is greater for laboratory-developed tests, commonly known as “home brew” tests, because they are currently exempt from FDA oversight.

In most cases, the innovator sponsors clinical studies subject to peer review and publication to demonstrate the efficacy of the new technology. These trials can also generate the clinical and cost data needed to convince practitioners that the test has reliable diagnostic or clinical value, and to persuade payors that the test is medically necessary.

However, Theranos declined requests to sponsor studies or disclose data. This was a red flag for many clinicians. In the interim, a group of independent investigators published a study based on a small sample of patients and found that the Theranos’s results were more variable than the results obtained from the same blood samples sent to laboratories using standard equipment. These variations were significant enough that they had the potential to affect clinical decision-making and jeopardize patients.

Who Is Investing in the Venture?

For start-up companies, committed investors are indispensable. Although early-stage investors are accustomed to risk, they also depend on reliable data to gauge whether health care professionals will adopt a new technology, and whether health plans will cover and pay for that technology. In Theranos’s case, several investors with experience in health care start-ups did not invest in the company because it did not release data on its proprietary technology and did not conduct or sponsor well-controlled clinical trials.

Who’s on Board?

The critical role of health care regulations demands that a company’s management and board be familiar with the key challenges and potential barriers to entry under the applicable regulatory framework. Nevertheless, at the time of the CMS survey Theranos’s board reportedly lacked individuals with specific experience in health care operations or clinical laboratories; however, it included two former Secretaries of State (one of whom had also been the dean of a business school), two former U.S. senators, the CEO of a bank, and retired military officers. While it is unclear how much the board knew of potential regulatory risks, the fact that CMS determined that the company had not made a “credible allegation of compliance” in response to any of the deficiencies in the initial survey report is an indicator that CMS did not believe that the company’s management and directors may not have appreciated the regulatory requirements or how to avoid or minimize these significant risks.