Churn at Justice as Drug Pricing Rule Falters Again

Bipartisan supporters of drug pricing transparency in the U.S. absorbed another blow when an appeals court rejected the Trump administration’s drug price transparency rule as lacking statutory support. This was not the only source of churn on the legal front as three top-level officers at the U.S. Department of Justice announced their resignations, putting the White House in a position of naming replacements in a process that may prove contentious in an already-contentious election year.

D.C. Circuit Court Backs District Court

In a June 16 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed a lower court’s rejection of the Trump administration’s May 2019 final rule for disclosure of wholesale acquisition costs (WACs) for some pharmaceuticals and biologics. The rule did not apply to items that cost less than $35 per month, but otherwise covered products available via the Medicare or Medicaid programs. Some stakeholders had argued that disclosure of those WACs would be meaningless for most consumers, given that their health or prescription drug plans act as fiscal intermediaries.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia imposed a stay on the rule a day before the rule was set to go into force in July 2019, and determined that makers of drugs and biotech therapies are not direct actors in the Medicare and Medicaid programs, thus nullifying the rule. The perceived absence of direct congressional intent regarding price disclosures was also noted in the district court ruling.

Attorneys for the Department of Health and Human Services had argued that the rule was a permissible regulatory mandate on the assumption that it led to more efficient administration of federal government programs. The D.C. Circuit Court declared that HHS had acted unreasonably in concluding that its authority allowed it to impose a “sweeping disclosure requirement that is largely untethered to the actual administration of the Medicare or Medicaid programs.” The district court demonstrated little interest in the government’s argument for deference per Chevron, although the circuit court conceded that federal government agencies enjoy at some deference from jurists. Still the court said the disclosure rule’s “blunderbuss operation falls beyond any reasonable exercise” of HHS’s statutory power.

The circuit court said also that the anticipated trickle-down effect of WAC price disclosures was insufficient to carry the government’s argument. The fact that the rule applied to all direct-to-consumer ads, not just those that directly address Medicare and/or Medicaid beneficiaries, also served to weaken the government’s case.

Francisco, Benczkowski and Hunt Resign

Solicitor General Noel Francisco has announced his resignation in a June 17 letter to President Trump, but Francisco’s news was virtually simultaneous with the news that Assistant Attorney General Jody Hunt would leave the department’s civil division. However, these were both preceded by roughly a week by the news that the department’s head of the criminal division, Brian Benczkowski, would also leave his post.

All three positions are critical for regulated industries as the SG enunciates the administration’s position on matters that appear before the Supreme Court, while the other two are responsible for federal enforcement prosecuted under the False Claims Act. Francisco’s letter said the resignation is effective July 3, bringing to an end a tenure that commenced in January 2017, when he was named the acting SG.

Francisco backed the failed effort to prod the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the patent subject matter eligibility problem, while Hunt and Benczkowski were in their respective offices as the Brand and Granston memos made themselves felt in federal prosecutions of corporate entities. They were also charged with administering changes to the Justice Manual, which was substantially revised in December 2018. Benczkowski and Hunt, like Francisco, will leave their jobs July 3.