Congress is currently considering two bills that would dramatically alter the ways in which all federal agencies develop and publish rules. If enacted, both would create significant new obligations for agencies such as CMS and the FDA, expand the scope of judicial review of rules, and would increase the potential for political influence over the rulemaking process. Both bills passed the House on party-line votes, and are under consideration by the Senate.

The first bill, H.R. 5, would overhaul multiple phases of the federal rulemaking process. These proposed changes would make the rulemaking process significantly longer and more complex for agencies, and includes provisions that could prevent some rules from ever taking effect. The key provisions of the bill are summarized below:

  • Prior to publishing any rule (1) with an expected annual impact of $100 million or more, (2) that may reduce employment, or (3) that involves a novel legal or policy issue, an agency would have to publish an advance notice that it intends to publish a proposed notice of rulemaking, and must solicit comments on the notice. A proposed rule could only be published after this new additional process is complete.
  • Whenever an agency publishes a proposed rule for public comment in any of the categories described above, it would have to explain the basis for the rule, the data it relied on, and would have to explain the alternatives to the rule and justify why they were not adopted. In addition to the current public comment period, once a proposed rule was published an interested party could then request a hearing to contest the quality of the information relied on by the agency. Any resolution of this new step would slow down the rulemaking process further.
  • In all cases where a rule is expected to have an annual impact of at least $1 billion annually, the agency would now be required to conduct a public hearing limited to fact issues. This would add to the time and cost of publishing a new or revised rule.
  • When a final rule is published, the agency would be required to explain in the preamble to that rule why the rule will have the lowest possible cost unless it involves public health, safety, or welfare.
  • All agencies would be required to publish all documents considered by an agency prior to publishing the rule.  This would eliminate the deliberative process privilege that has been in place for decades, which is intended to promote the exchange of views within an agency, and may have a chilling effect on agency deliberation. In many cases, a final rule could not take effect until all of the information relied on by the agency had been made available electronically for at least six months unless the agency or the President claims an exception.
  • Recipients of federal funds would be prohibited from advocating for or against the rule, or appealing to the public to either support or oppose the rule.
  • Guidance documents issued by agencies, including manuals, circulars, and other subregulatory publications would no longer have any legal effect and could not be relied on by the agency for any actions. The bill does not explain how many important parts of federal programs, such as the administration of grants or cost accounting for hospitals in the Medicare program would be handled. These and other programs rely heavily on the detailed information found only in agency manuals and guidance. Without these guidelines, health care providers, suppliers, manufacturers, and researchers among others would find it increasingly difficult to comply with federal laws.

The bill would also make drastic changes in the scope of any judicial review of published agency rules. The bill would overturn the Supreme Court’s landmark Chevron decision, which established the principle that when an agency is charged with administering a statute and interprets ambiguous statutory language in a regulation, courts will defer to the agency’s permissible interpretation of the law. In its place, the bill would authorize courts to review all questions of law involving a regulation without giving weight to the agency’s experience or expertise. Courts would be empowered to impose their own constructions of the law on an agency, upending decades of precedents. This has the potential to increase federal courts’ dockets and place those courts in the position of reviewing technical information without all of the resources available to conduct a review. In addition, by allowing courts to decide cases without relying on the agency’s rationale, this increases the potential for inconsistent decisions and confusion among regulated entities such as health care providers, suppliers, and manufacturers seeking to comply with federal laws.

The second bill, H.R. 26, focuses more on expanding Congress’s control over the rulemaking process once an agency has completed the public notice and comment procedure under current law. It also expands the legislative veto over rules, which currently is authorized only when Congress disapproves of a rule and requires the President’s concurrence.

Under the bill, agencies would be required to report all new rules to Congress, and must identify all “major rules” as determined by the Office of Management and Budget that (1) will have an annual impact of $100M or more, (2) increases costs or prices, or (3) will have a significant impact on competition, employment, investment, or foreign trade. The report to Congress must also contain an analysis of the projected number or jobs that would be gained or lost as result of the rule. All major rules with the exception of those necessary for an emergency, enforcement of criminal laws, or to implement a trade agreement would not go into effect unless both houses of Congress approve the rule by a joint resolution within 70 legislative days after the agency submits its report. There is only one chance to obtain approval of a major rule during a session of Congress; if the joint resolution is not approved, or if no action is taken, the bill would bar Congress from considering a second resolution on the same rule during the same two-year session of Congress. This would allow Congress to override an agency and force the agency to begin the rulemaking anew, if at all. Congress would retain the authority to disapprove all other rules by a joint resolution. The bill also allows for judicial review of Congress’s actions only to review whether or not it followed the procedure in the statute; the merits of any action would be unreviewable.

In addition to expanding control over prospective rules, the bill would also add a sunset provision for existing rules. All agencies would be required to review current rules at least once every ten years and report to Congress; if Congress then failed to enact a joint resolution to retain the rules, they would be nullified.

Although the bills passed the House, it will be much harder for the Senate to pass them as well. Under Senate rules, 60 votes are required to end debate and bring the bills to a vote. Since the Republicans only hold 52 seats, they would need additional votes from Democrats in order for the bills to pass.

Where does the line fall between good faith and criminal intent? That was the question that a Massachusetts federal jury faced in July as it deliberated criminal charges against William Facteau and Patrick Fabian, ex-Acclarent executives, who were indicted on multiple charges of fraud and misbranding a medical device. Acclarent’s device, the Relieva Stratus Microflow Spacer (“Stratus”), was cleared by the FDA for use as a spacer to maintain an opening in the sinus. Although the FDA expressly rejected Acclarant’s request to expand the indicated use of the device to include delivery of drugs, the government alleged that Acclarent promoted Stratus as a delivery method for the steroid drug Kenalog.

The arguments at trial focused on whether, in the defense’s view, Acclarent had done no more than claim that it had a good faith belief that it could promote the proven success of Stratus for delivering Kenalog, or the government’s position that the company’s leadership deliberately evaded the FDA’s requirements in order to put a product on the market without adequate data. The defense highlighted how, after receiving clearance for Stratus as a spacer, Acclarent asked the FDA to expand the indications for use to include the delivery of Kenalog, a corticosteroid. The FDA would not approve the expanded indication without multiple clinical trial data. The government, on the other hand, emphasized that Acclarent withheld this information when promoting Stratus to Ethicon, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson that bought Acclarent in 2010. After the deal closed and Ethicon realized Stratus lacked FDA clearance to deliver steroids, Ethicon ordered Acclarent to stop all off-label promotions to doctors and to notify the FDA. While Acclarent did contact the FDA, evidence shows that Facteau and Fabian continued encouraging sales representatives to promote Stratus for the delivery of Kenalog. An Acclarent sales representative testified that sales training focused on how to promote the use of Stratus with Kenalog without directly promoting the off-label use, and the videos used to train physicians showed Stratus being used to deliver a white substance resembling the steroid.

Ultimately, after six weeks of trial and almost three days of deliberations, the jury decided that good faith won over the alleged criminal intent. Fabian and Facteau were acquitted of all felony charges but convicted of ten misdemeanor counts of misbranding and adulteration of Stratus. The jury concluded that while the off-label promotion rules were broken, there was not enough evidence to conclude that the defendants had the intent to mislead or defraud doctors or the FDA. The misdemeanor convictions were based on statutes that impose strict liability, for which no finding of a criminal intent is required. A misdemeanor violation of the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act (“FDCA”) has a maximum sentence of a year in prison per count, a year of supervised release, and a fine of either $100,000 or double the gross gain or loss.

When the dust settled from the jury’s verdict, Facteau and Fabian submitted a formal request for acquittal of the misdemeanor convictions. If the federal judge denies their request for judgment, the ex-Acclarent executives will seek a new trial. The outcome of this case may affect how medical device manufacturers deal with FDA oversight, particularly where a manufacturer seeks to market a device for a specific use but only has data addressing a more basic purpose. At the same time, the outcome may serve as an indication to the FDA that bringing similar criminal charges for off-label promotion in the future may prove more difficult than anticipated.

This post was written with assistance from Megan E. Robertson, a 2016 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

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.

Robert E. Wanerman
Robert E. Wanerman

A group of conservative members of Congress have introduced a pair of bills (S. 2724 and H.R. 4768) that would sweep away one of the basic principles of administrative law if they became law. The proposed amendments would make it easier to challenge many determinations involving the Department of Health and Human Services in federal courts by legislatively overruling the deference commonly applied to agency interpretations of the law.

Even before the Administrative Procedure Act was enacted in 1946, the Supreme Court gave great weight to an administrative agency’s interpretations of the statutes they administer.  Since 1984, the scope of judicial review of agency action has been guided by the Court’s ruling in Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842-43 (1984), which described a familiar two-part analysis: (1) if Congress has directly addressed the precise question in legislation, a court follows the statute; (2) if the statute is silent or ambiguous, then a court does not craft its own interpretation of the statute but determines if the agency’s action is based on a “permissible construction of the statute.”  Since that time, Chevron has become the most frequently cited case in federal administrative law, and Chevron-type deference has been central to judicial review of administrative decisions in hundreds of rulings by the Supreme Court and lower federal courts.

The bills would eliminate judicial deference to administrative agency determinations by requiring that a reviewing court, whether a district court or a court of appeals, make an initial determination on all relevant questions of law without regard to any interpretations of statutes or rules in the agency’s final decision.  According to the sponsors, this will expand the role of the judiciary as a check against agency action and remedy the perceived imbalance between the branches of government.  The lead sponsor in the Senate, Senator Hatch, stated in a press release that amending the Administrative Procedure Act is necessary to ensure that courts determine the law and not administrative agencies.  In support of their position, the sponsors cited to three decisions of the Supreme Court as examples of abuses under Chevron, even though two of those decisions were written by Justice Scalia and the third by Justice Thomas.

However, even if this amendment were enacted it might not achieve its stated goal. It likely would not require that all agency interpretations be discarded once a party seeks judicial review of agency action; under several pre-Chevron decisions of the Supreme Court, a reviewing court can still give an agency’s interpretation significant weight and defer to the agency’s position if it is persuaded that the agency has acted within the scope of its delegated authority from Congress and considered the matter thoroughly.  In addition, it would not halt the role of administrative agencies to fill necessary gaps created when Congress enacts ambiguous legislation.

Robert E. Wanerman
Robert E. Wanerman

Even after the Secretary of HHS admitted that the current backlog of Medicare Part B appeals would take ten years to adjudicate at current staffing and funding levels, that was not enough for a hospital to obtain any relief from a court. Cumberland County Hospital System, Inc. v. Burwell, No. 15-1393 (4th Cir., Mar. 7, 2016).  In that case, a North Carolina hospital had initially been paid for over 900 claims, but those claims were subsequently determined to be ineligible after a post-payment review by a Recovery Audit Contractor (“RAC”), which sought to recover over $12 million from the hospital.  Although the hospital complied with the deadlines for filing administrative appeals, the Medicare Office of Hearings and Appeals had not held hearings or made determinations within the 90-day deadline in the Medicare statute. In order to expedite the process, the hospital sought a writ of mandamus from a federal court to order the Secretary to conduct the hearings.  The district court denied the motion, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed with the Secretary that no relief was warranted.

The court noted the Secretary’s admission that there are over 800,000 pending Medicare appeals, and that absent any legislative remedy it would take over ten years to hear and decide the current caseload.  Despite these appalling statistics and the court’s own statement that, “HHS’s procedural arteries are seriously clogged,” the court agreed with the Secretary that because the Medicare statute gives claimants the option of escalating their claim to the next level of review if hearing deadlines are not met, the hospital was not entitled to the court order it sought.

The Cumberland County decision highlights a critical step for anyone seeking to appeal a Medicare coverage or reimbursement decision: making sure that the record is complete as early as possible in the appeal process.  Under the Medicare hearing regulations, it becomes more difficult to introduce additional evidence at each level of review, and new evidence will not be considered by a reviewing court. As a result, anyone appealing an unfavorable Medicare decision should either be prepared to be patient, or should make a complete record as early as possible in the process if an option is escalating an appeal to a higher level to get a timely hearing.  Although Congress is considering legislation that may help, the degree of that help or when that help may arrive is still too uncertain to predict.