New rules issued on November 7, 2017 by FDA will make it easier for companies to offer certain types of genetic tests directly-to-consumers (DTC), without a health-care provider intermediary.

The first rule exempts “autosomal recessive carrier screening gene mutation detection systems” that are offered DTC from FDA premarket review.  FDA first proposed this exemption in 2015, on the same date as the agency issued a final order classifying these types of tests as Class II medical devices, in response to a request from 23andMe.  The 2015 final rule specified the conditions under which all companies could offer autosomal recessive carrier tests directly to the public.  By finalizing the exemption, FDA is permitting companies to offer these tests DTC without the need for prior FDA review.  These companies will still be subject to general requirements applicable to all medical device manufacturers, as well as to the “special controls” specified by FDA for these types of tests in the final rule.

Similarly, the second rule finalizes a new medical device classification for  DTC “genetic health risk assessment” (GHR)  (i.e., predictive) tests.  The classification specifies the conditions under which these tests may be marketed, and includes the requirement for a 510(k) premarket notification to FDA. However, in a Federal Register Notice, also issued yesterday, FDA proposes to exempt GHR tests from the 510(k) premarket submission requirement after a company has successfully obtained FDA clearance of its first GHR assay, and provided that the company continues to follow the specified special controls for this class of tests.  Comments to this proposed exemption are being accepted by FDA until January 8. 

Please reach out to Gail Javitt or the Food and Drug Law practice team members for additional information.

The passage of the 21st Century Cures Act (“Cures Act”) and revisions to the Common Rule (45 CFR Part 46) (“Common Rule”) in the last year mandated significant changes to informed consent laws.  As a result of these changes, sponsors of research (“Sponsors”), institutions conducting research (“Institutions”), and the institutional review boards (“IRBs”) approving research will need to review policies and practices involving informed consent.  As explained below, a recently published FDA guidance document makes a first step toward implementing some of these changes by permitting waiver of certain consent requirements for low risk research involving human subjects. Additionally, a recent ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court discussed below reminds investigators, Institutions, and Sponsors performing clinical research in Pennsylvania that state informed consent laws and common law must also be considered before conducting clinical research involving human subjects.  The following brief discussion provides some insight into how Sponsors, Institutions, and IRBs should take into account varying sources of law when determining when to require consent for research involving human subjects.

FDA Guidance on Waivers of Consent

On July 13, the United States Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) issued a guidance document titled “IRB Waiver on Alteration of Informed Consent for Clinical Investigations Involving No More Than Minimal Risk to Human Subjects” (“Consent Guidance”).  The Consent Guidance states that “FDA does not intend to object to a sponsor initiating, or an investigator conducting, a minimal risk clinical investigation for which an IRB waives or alters the informed consent requirements” to the extent that the IRB documents that: the research “involves no more than minimal risk;” the waiver “will not adversely affect the rights and welfare of the subjects;” the research “could not practicably be carried out without the waiver;” and “subjects will be provided with additional pertinent information after participation,” if appropriate.  The Consent Guidance is an initial step toward implementing Section 3024 of the Cures Act, which amended the Food, Drugs, and Cosmetic Act to provide FDA with the authority to exempt certain research of drugs or medical devices from informed consent requirements if the research poses “no more than minimal risk” to human subjects and includes “appropriate safeguards to protect the rights, safety, and welfare” for participating subjects.  However, current FDA regulations do not provide IRBs with the power to waive consent except in certain circumstances involving an emergency or a life-threatening situation.  While FDA’s guidance documents contain disclaimers that the documents, themselves, lack any authority and cannot be relied upon, Sponsors, Institutions, and IRBs should be confident moving forward under the Consent Guidance as it stems directly from authority granted to FDA under the Cures Act and is consistent with the approach taken by the revised Common Rule.  The FDA is expected to provide updates to its own human research subject protection regulations in 21 CFR Parts 50 and 56, which based on the Consent Guidance will include “minimal research” provisions similar to the Consent Guidance and the revised Common Rule.  These rules will also address new provisions regarding identifiable biospecimens, which are not addressed under the Consent Guidance.  Once these new rules are established, FDA has stated that it will withdraw the Consent Guidance.

Recent Case Law

While Federal laws and regulations shape many aspects of informed consent, state laws may impose additional nuances that providers must understand. For example, a recent decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will impact the manner in which informed consent must be obtained by physicians practicing in the state of Pennsylvania.  In Shinal v. Toms, M.D., 162 A.3d 429 (2017), Court held that physicians may no longer rely upon information provided by non-physicians to satisfy physician obligations under the MCARE Act, 40 Pa.  Stat. § 1303, et seq, which imposes a duty on physicians to obtain informed consent before performing certain procedures.  The specific law at issue was Section 504 of the MCARE Act, which creates a duty for a physician “to a patient to obtain the informed consent of the patient” before performing surgery, administering radiation or chemotherapy, administering a blood transfusion, inserting a surgical device, or “administering an experimental medication, using an experimental device or using an approved medication or device in an experimental manner.”  In Shinal v. Toms, M.D., 162 A.3d 429 (2017), the plaintiff asserted that Section 504 required Dr. Toms, the plaintiff’s surgeon, to provide all information and receive a patient’s informed consent personally in order to fulfill the physician’s duty for obtaining informed consent under the statute.  After an initial discussion with Dr. Toms regarding certain surgical options, the plaintiff later called to ask additional questions regarding different surgical procedures and was directed to a nurse to have her questions answered.  The plaintiff argued that her consent for the surgery was not sufficiently informed because the information provided to her about her surgical options should have been provided by Dr. Toms.  The Court agreed, and its 4-3 decision held that physicians in Pennsylvania must directly “disclose the information required to obtain informed consent.”

While Shinal involved consent for a surgical procedure, Section 504 of the MCARE Act also requires physicians to obtain informed consent  before administering an experimental drug or device.  This ruling will undoubtedly require many Institutions in Pennsylvania to change how informed consent is obtained from potential subjects in clinical trials, as it is common practice within the industry for physician investigators to delegate the informed consent process, or at least certain portions of the consent discussion with potential research subjects, to members of the Institution’s study staff.  Sponsors will likewise want to investigate the consent processes of Institutions conducting research on their behalf in Pennsylvania and review informed consent templates used by these Institutions to ensure they reflect the holding in Shinal.

The position expressed by the Shinal Court that only information provided by a licensed physician may be considered in determining whether the physician fulfilled his or her duty to provide informed consent appears to be unique among the states.  Nevertheless, it demonstrates to Sponsors, Institutions, and IRBs the importance of looking beyond FDA regulations and the Common Rule when developing and maintaining standard operating procedures and templates for obtaining informed consent.  Even if certain research may meet “minimal risk” rules at a federal level, Institutions must still abide by applicable state laws with regard to the requisite consent required before treating patients within the study.

At the end of July, FDA released a tangible plan for promoting innovation in the development of digital health products. In this Digital Health Innovation Action Plan, FDA acknowledges that digital health technologies are critically important in advancing health care, and that traditional FDA pathways to market are not well suited for all of these technologies. Over the last few years, FDA has taken a deregulatory approach with respect to low risk digital health products and has issued guidance regarding its enforcement discretion approach to wellness products, medical device data systems, medical imaging communication and storage devices and certain mobile apps. However, there still has been uncertainty with respect to whether, and how, other digital health technologies will be regulated. This new plan paves the way for additional regulatory clarity and streamlined pathways to market for digital health developers.

Some of the key aspects of the plan include:

  • Issuing 21st Century Cures Act implementation guidance. The Cures Act, which was passed in December of last year, includes provisions clarifying FDA’s regulation of software. Specifically, these provisions explicitly exclude certain software from FDA’s definition of a “medical device,” including electronic health records and software that encourages healthy living, displays, transmits, stores or performs limited conversion of medical device data and supports administrative activities. As a result, these products are not subject to FDA’s oversight. The planned draft guidance, which the Agency hopes to release by the end of the year, will reconcile these new Cures provisions with existing FDA guidance. Cleaning up and clarifying policies in this space will help solidify FDA’s interpretations and reduce regulatory uncertainty.
    FDA also commits to providing guidance regarding products that include regulated and unregulated functionality. The Cures Act makes clear that the fact that an unregulated application co-exists with a regulated application within a solution does not submit the unregulated functionality to FDA oversight. FDA still may consider how the unregulated software impacts the safety and effectiveness of the regulated software, but the unregulated software nevertheless remains unregulated.
  • Running a pilot program focused on “pre-certification” of digital health developers. In September, FDA will launch a pilot pre-certification program applicable to manufacturers of stand alone medical device software. The purpose of the program is to develop objective criteria that, if met, would demonstrate an entity’s ability to reliably develop high quality, safe and effective software. The intent is for FDA to use these criteria to develop a framework to pre-certify software developers that satisfy the requirements. In turn, pre-certified developers would be subject to a streamlined premarket review for new lower-risk products (e.g., less premarket submission information would be required and/or review times would be faster). FDA indicated that, in some instances, pre-certified companies would be able to market certain lower risk products, that presumably would be subject to 510(k) clearance today, without any premarket review at all. However, to account for reducing the front end requirements, FDA envisions that developers will collect real-world data once their products hit the market to assure they are safe and effective.
  • Issuing CDS software guidance. By the first quarter of 2018, FDA plans to issue draft guidance detailing which CDS is not subject to FDA regulation. The Cures Act carves out transparent, professional use CDS from the definition of a medical device. This carved-out CDS is software that is not intended to be relied upon as the primary basis for a clinical decision, but rather allows the healthcare professional to independently review and assess the underlying rationale for the software recommendation in connection with making a clinical decision. While guidance on how FDA interprets the relevant Cures language on this issue will be helpful, it is equally, if not more important, for the Agency to provide guidance on CDS that falls outside of the Cures Act exemption (e.g., consumer clinical decision support, machine learning and non-transparent CDS).
  • Finalizing 510(k) Guidance on Software Changes. FDA’s Digital Health Innovation Action Plan also includes finalizing the draft guidance on “Deciding When to Submit a 510(k) for a Software Change to an Existing Device.” This guidance is the software counterpart to FDA’s draft guidance on “Deciding When to Submit a 510(k) for a Change to an Existing Device,” which has had a controversial past. FDA first attempted to revise its guidance on when a 510(k) is required due to a change made to a device in 2011. FDA was required by Congress to withdraw its 2011 draft guidance due to the potentially significant impact the draft guidance would have on industry. In August 2016, FDA published this pair of draft guidance documents. Given the disagreement and debate that has surrounded this topic, a definitive FDA approach will provide manufacturers greater certainty regarding any submission requirements for the range of software changes made to traditional medical devices, as well as to stand alone software devices.
  • Adopting the IMDRF’s Approach to Clinically Evaluating SaMD Once Finalized. FDA also intends to adopt the final version of the Software as a Medical Device (SaMD): Clinical Evaluation guidance as published by International Medical Device Regulators Forum (IMDRF). FDA released draft guidance that incorporated this IMDRF document in 2016. While it is unclear how procedurally FDA will adopt a final version of the IMDRF policy without public review and comment, the IMDRF framework will nevertheless provide insight into FDA’s thinking on clinical evaluation requirements for medical device software given the Agency’s leadership in the IMDRF work group that drafted the document and this pre-emptive endorsement. It also serves as a reminder that despite FDA efforts to minimize regulatory burdens for low risk digital health products, moderate and high risk medical device software remains subject to FDA’s premarket review. The 21st Century Cures and CDS guidance, both of which are expected after IMDRF’s SaMD’s Clinical Evaluation document is finalized, will be instrumental in clarifying which digital health products are subject to such requirements.

Although FDA has been expected to release many of these policies for years, the Digital Health Innovation Action Plan is aggressive, promising five draft or final guidance documents in just over six months, while at the same time conducting the pre-certification pilot program.  Whether this is a reflection of the new administration, a new Commissioner or a new (or renewed) focus on digital health innovation, it is a welcome development and one that will be watched closely by software companies, traditional medical device manufacturers and patients alike.

On May 9, 2017, Scott Gottlieb, M.D. was confirmed by the Senate as the new Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”).  As Commissioner, he will be immediately responsible for shaping FDA policy on a number of current issues, including addressing and implementing several mandates stemming from the 21st Century Cures Act, (“Cures Act”), which was signed into law on December 13, 2016 with tremendous bipartisan support. The Cures Act contains over 200 sections that create new obligations for FDA; however, most pressing for Commissioner Gottlieb are three requirements that must be fulfilled within 180 days of the Cures Act’s passage (June 11th, 2017).

These requirements are:

  • Submission of a work plan to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and the Committee on Appropriations of the Senate and the Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Committee on Appropriations of the House of Representatives for any projects, which will use funding from the FDA Innovation Account created under Section 1002 of the Cures Act;
  • Development of “a plan to issue draft and final versions of one or more guidance documents, over a period of 5 years, regarding the collection of patient experience data, and the use of such data and related information in drug development” pursuant to Section 3002 of the Cures Act, which is codified at 21 U.S.C. 360bbb-8c; and
  •  Publication of “a list of reusable device types” pursuant to Section 3059 of the Cures Act, which is codified at 21 U.S.C. 360.

Commissioner Gottlieb has a long professional history in the pharmaceutical industry working in both the public and private sectors. His firsthand experience as a former Deputy Commissioner at the FDA provides him with unique insights into the internal workings of the administration. As a former consultant advising on FDA policies to the pharmaceutical industry, Commissioner Gottlieb is also familiar with recent issues and trends affecting the industry, many of which are addressed within the Cures Act.  Despite having only one month to organize and address the mandates of the three above-referenced sections of the Cures Act, we believe Commissioner Gottlieb will likely meet these deadlines based on his prior knowledge and experience.

We will continue to monitor and provide insight on Commissioner Gottlieb’s activity as FDA Commissioner, and the implementation of key Cures Act provisions as they develop. For insight into how Commissioner Gottlieb has historically viewed key issues impacting the FDA, and mandates under the Cures Act, please view our previously published client alert.

On January 19, 2017, the United States Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) unveiled a new drug designation process for regenerative advanced therapies, an important first step toward implementation of the regenerative medicine provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act.  Products for which a designation as a regenerative advanced therapy (“RAT”) is obtained are eligible for accelerated approval under the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law by former President Obama on December 13, 2016 with sweeping bipartisan support.

The accelerated approval provisions for RATs under the 21st Century Cures Act are intended to facilitate expedited review and approval of stem cell therapies and other cellular and tissue products for use in serious or life threatening diseases, which are currently subject to regulation as unapproved drugs. Under the 21st Century Cures Act, regenerative medicine therapies eligible for a RAT designation may include any “cell therapy, therapeutic tissue engineering product, human cell and tissue product, or any combination product using such therapies or products, except for those products regulated solely under Section 361 of the Public Health Service Act (“PHS”), and part 1271 of Title 21, Code of Federal regulations.”[1]

Under the 21st Century Cures Act, the sponsor of a product must show the following to be eligible for a RAT designation:

  • The drug is a regenerative medicine therapy;
  • The drug is intended to treat, modify, reverse, or cure a serious or life-threatening disease or condition;[2] and
  • Preliminary clinical evidence indicates that the drug has the potential to address unmet medical needs for such disease or condition.

Pursuant to the FDA website on the Regenerative Advanced Therapy Designation, a sponsor requesting a RAT designation for its product must make such a request either concurrently with submission of an Investigational New Drug application (“IND”), or as an amendment to an existing IND. Consistent with requests for fast track and breakthrough therapy designations, the FDA only requires that a sponsor describe the preliminary clinical evidence that supports a RAT designation, and does not require the sponsor to submit primary data.  Information that will be considered includes: a description of any available therapies for the disease or condition already in existence, the study design, the population studied, the endpoints used, and a description of the study results and statistical analyses.

The RAT designation process will be overseen by the newly created Office of Tissues and Advanced Therapies (OTAT). The OTAT will manage the application process for RAT designation, and will notify the sponsor within 60 days of receiving an application as to whether the RAT designation is granted. If a sponsor does not receive a RAT designation for its product the OTAT will provide an explanation in writing of its rationale for the denial.

A sponsor that obtains a RAT designation for its product is entitled to meet with the FDA early in its development program to discuss the potential use of surrogate or intermediate endpoints that may be used to support accelerated approval of the product. RATs may be eligible for accelerated approval based upon surrogate or intermediate endpoints reasonably likely to predict a long-term clinical benefit, and based on data obtained from a “meaningful number of sites” with subsequent expansion to additional sites, along with the collection of additional data in the post-market phase.

The implementation of the RAT designation process will enable manufacturers to begin to take advantage of the less burdensome review process enabled by the 21st Century Cures Act.  While some patient advocates have expressed concern that the availability of an accelerated approval pathway for regenerative medicine products may impede the development of robust evidence establishing their safety and effectiveness, and may ultimately result in patient harm, 21st Century Cures’ accelerated approval provisions are likely to be a harbinger of a new wave of regenerative medicine therapies that provide additional options for patients facing serious or life threatening conditions.

____

[1] 21st Century Cures Act Sec., Sec. 3033(8).  Human Cells, tissues, and cellular and tissue-based products (HCT/Ps) are regulated solely under section 361 of the PHS Act and the regulations of 21 C.F.R. Part 1271 if all of the following criteria are met: the HCT/P is minimally manipulated, intended for homologous use (as reflected in labeling and advertising), is not manufactured by combining cells or tissues with another article, except for water, crystalloids, or a sterilizing, preserving or storage agent, and does not have a systemic effect nor is dependent upon the metabolic activity of living cells for its primary function. Therefore, if a product meets all of the aforementioned criteria, the HCT/P will still be regulated under 21 C.F.R. Part 1271 and will not be subject to regulation as a drug product.

[2] The FDA will use its standard definitions found in its Expedited Program Guidance as a guide to determining whether a product meets the required criteria, such as whether a condition is “serious or life-threatening” or whether a drug is “intended to treat a serious disease or condition.”

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.