Controversies in Limbo: Paclitaxel and the Lab Rate Reset

Occupants of the med tech industry are all too aware that the issues that affect their livelihoods often take quite a while to play out, a fact of life that can permanently damage a manufacturer’s fortunes. Following are two such episodes, one involving the paclitaxel problem for devices used in the femoropopliteal arteries and the other a scrum arising from a congressionally mandated reset of the Medicare clinical lab fee schedule.

Uncertainty Persists After Latest FDA Update on Paclitaxel

The controversy over the use of paclitaxel in drug-eluting balloons and drug-eluting stents for the lower limbs seems no closer to a resolution after the FDA posted a new update on the matter. The emphasis now is on consent and labeling, the agency said, but the question of whether the presumed mortality signal related to these devices is little closer, if any, to resolution than it was at the beginning of the year.

The FDA’s Jan. 17, 2019, letter to physicians made reference to the medical journal article alleging that a higher mortality rate was seen in DCB and DES devices using paclitaxel as an antiproliferative, an association that began to emerge in some data sets at about two years. The agency held a two-day advisory hearing on the question during which several prominent cardiologists said the purported connection between paclitaxel and mortality compared to uncoated balloons and stents was poorly backed by the evidence. One clinician, Renu Virmani of the CVPath Institute in Gaithersburg, Md., said she had conducted more than 100 autopsies of patients who had been treated with paclitaxel-bearing devices in the coronary arteries and that none of those deaths were due to the antiproliferative. Virmani, whose remarks can be seen in the FDA transcript for the second day of the hearing, said those fatalities were instead caused by the patient’s underlying coronary artery disease.

The agency’s latest update, posted Aug. 7, is aimed at health care professionals, but the agency stated it is working with device makers and researchers on adding to the evidence base. At present, that evidence includes three randomized trials which enrolled slightly fewer than 1,100 patients, and the agency said the crude mortality rate at five years for these studies was nearly 20 percent for paclitaxel-coated devices and 12.7 percent with uncoated devices. This translates into a 57 percent increase in mortality risk, but the FDA also noted that a meta-analysis performed by Vascular InterVentional Advances Physicians on patient-level data arrived at a hazard ratio of 1.38. This analysis, the FDA said, was based on data provided by manufacturers.

The effect on device makers has been noticeable, with one device maker stating on an investor conference call that sales of their DCB device were cut by 50 percent, while another company lost out on a Medicare new technology add-on payment because of the association between paclitaxel and mortality. Despite the impact on utilization and thus sales, the FDA has acknowledged that there is no apparent connection between dose and mortality, and that there is as yet no demonstrated mechanism of causation.

The FDA announcement advised clinicians that the benefits of these devices may outweigh the risks for patients at “particularly high risk” of restenosis and repeat procedures to deal with the underlying disease. Sponsors of ongoing studies will likely have to amend their informed consent documents, which along with the media coverage could hamper trial enrollment and completion.

Appeals Court Sides with ACLA in Lab Rate Lawsuit

The Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014 called on the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to reset the rates paid for lab tests by surveying labs for the rates paid by private payers, but the agency’s efforts to comply with that mandate were mired in controversy nearly from the outset. The American Clinical Laboratory Association filed a lawsuit against the agency in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, but lost in that suit, although an appeals court recently overturned that dismissal.

The D.C. District Court dismissed the lawsuit in September 2018 due to a purported lack of subject matter jurisdiction, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed that finding in part. The appeals court said that while the rates provided by Medicare under the clinical lab fee schedule are not subject to judicial review, PAMA did not clearly provide that insulation from legal challenge to the methods used by CMS to collect the private payer data.

There is legislation in the House of Representatives that would suspend the rate reset effort another year, and would require that the National Academy of Medicine advise CMS on the question of sampling. The Laboratory Access for Beneficiaries Act of 2019 (H.R. 3584) was introduced to the House Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce Committees in June, but has the support of only 13 sponsors as of Aug. 11. There does not appear to be a companion bill in the Senate, either, according to the bill’s listing at Congress.gov. ACLA said in a July 30 statement that the D.C. District Court should “act quickly” to respond to the appeals court decision, but also that Congress should “immediately halt the data reporting process.”