DC District Court Sides With Pharma Over WAC Rule

The U.S. federal government’s pressure on drug makers has ratcheted up considerably over the past few years and included a rule that would have forced pharmaceutical manufacturers to list the wholesale acquisition cost of their products in any direct-to-consumer ads. That effort on the part of the Trump administration came up short in a lawsuit heard recently in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in a decision that went against the administration before the question of compelled commercial speech was even considered.

The Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said in the pricing disclosure final rule that the intent of the rule was to give Medicare beneficiaries “relevant information” about the cost of drugs so as to enable beneficiaries to minimize their out-of-pocket spending. The scope of the final rule included prescription drugs and biotech products as covered by both the Medicare and Medicaid programs, although the rule also acknowledged that manufacturers were at liberty to advise viewers that their final costs might differ from the wholesale acquisition cost (WAC).

Conversely, the litigants, which included the Association of National Advertisers and three pharmaceutical companies, argued that listing WACs in ads would not only confuse the drug price question for beneficiaries of both programs, but indeed that HHS had anticipated that the rule would actually mislead beneficiaries.

The court said in its decision that the plaintiffs put forth two arguments, the first of which was that the federal government had exceeded its authority in that the statute neither expressly nor implicitly granted the federal government the power to mandate such disclosures under the Social Security Act. Judge Amit Mehta said that given that the federal government had failed to pass this first hurdle, there was no need to review the question of the First Amendment challenge posed by the plaintiffs, which they had said revolved around the HHS’s failure to demonstrate that it could not achieve its ultimate objective by other means. The rule was set to go into force July 9, but the decision was published July 8, thus foreclosing any chance to enforce the rule.

Mehta indicated that attorneys for the federal government declined to cite Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Defenses Resource Council, Inc., a defense that revolves around the proposition that when Congress speaks lucidly to the executive branch, some deference is owed to the executive branch’s efforts to act on that legislative imperative. Instead, attorneys for the federal government are said to have cited Mourning v. Family Publications Services, Inc., which provides a rather broader mechanism that is said to support the validity of regulatory actions so long as those actions can be construed to be “reasonably related” to the directing portion of the statute. Mehta would have none of it, however, indicating that Mourning is at best secondary to Chevron and ultimately insufficient to carry the government’s argument.

One of the problems with the executive branch’s argument in Mehta’s view was that the rule would have regulated the conduct of parties that are not direct participants in either the Medicare or the Medicaid programs. He stated further that the government’s argument that the statute allows the government to act in effort to “minimize unreasonable expenditures” falls flat because the statute does not empower the federal government to regulate the health care market itself or any actors therein as a means of reducing costs.

The predicament faced by CMS and HHS here is somewhat reminiscent of the fate of the least costly alternative policy under the twin cases of Hays v. Leavitt and Hays v. Sebelius, neither of which went the way the federal government had hoped. In that conflict, the Chevron defense was raised, albeit to little useful effect. Precisely where this latest outcome leaves the administration in its effort to tamp down on drug prices is difficult to forecast, but it might be noted that the FDA was for a number of years presumed to be the federal government agency in the best position to act on drug prices. Indeed, members of FDA advisory panels have proposed that costs should factor into their votes in support of or against an applicant product, but the FDA has never explicitly demonstrated any appetite for such authority, with or without the support of federal advisory committees.

Innovation on Tap at FDA, HHS

Few major U.S. federal government initiatives move as quickly as hoped, but those initiatives are nonetheless crucial for stakeholders in the life sciences intent on bringing innovative products to the clinical setting. The Department of Health and Human Services recently unveiled a program that could bring new drugs and devices to the market more rapidly than has been the case up to now, while the FDA provided an update on its digital health plan that reinforced the notion that the plan will indeed take time to put into place, even as the agency makes changes with the intent of streamlining the plan.

HHS Eyes Faster Medical Product Access

The Department of Health and Human Services said in a recent announcement that it will hold a two-day meeting June 20-21 to obtain stakeholder feedback on how to decrease the time needed for drugs and devices to make their way into clinical use. This is one of the programmatic areas under the ReImagine HHS initiative, and among the topics to be discussed is whether the department should play a role in connecting medical product developers with private payers and Medicaid managed care plans.

HHS said this portion of the proceedings is in response to complaints from both developers and payers that the process of communication between the two sides is inefficient. The FDA’s device center already has an office to facilitate communications with private payers during the device development process, so this move on the part of HHS would presumably scale up the CDRH version and expand it to include pharmaceuticals and biotech therapeutics. Another subject for discussion is “knowledge sharing,” which again is intended to bolster the rate of transmission of medical product innovation to the marketplace, in this case by giving the public more access to both confidential and already publicly available HHS information.

Device makers have complained over the years that public health programs have stifled access to therapies and diagnostics that could represent a meaningful improvement over the current state of the art, and among the initiatives already underway to fix those problems are some changes to the Medicare local coverage determination process. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services also proposed in the draft inpatient prospective payment system for fiscal 2020 to provide coverage to any products that are accepted into the FDA breakthrough devices program. The breakthrough devices coverage concept seen in the 2020 inpatient draft reflects an industry proposal designed to aid small device makers in developing the evidence needed to meet the reasonable and necessary standard for Medicare coverage. The combination of these developments suggests that HHS Secretary Alex Azar has determined that healthcare innovation is hindered by the size of government and the complexity of its regulatory instruments, and that patients are suffering as a consequence.

Precert Test Plan May

The FDA is inching along with its precertification program for software as a medical device, announcing recently that it will accept applications for the precert test plan that will unfold over the balance of the current year and possibly into next year. However, the agency said it will accept applications for the precert program that run dual tracks with either the 510(k) or the de novo program, the former of which was not an explicit part of the precert concept until recently.

The FDA had previously appended the de novo petition process to the precert program in a move some argued was prompted by a desire to avoid accusations that the precert concept was entirely extralegal. The addition of the 510(k) pathway seems to offer no additional benefit in that regard, however, although it would bring on some test cases that reflect the majority of class II device applications, those that are based on a predicate rather than those that represent a technological novelty.

The announcement reiterates that companies involved in the testing phase will not actually obtain precertification merely by virtue of participation in the test phase, although applicants need not subject themselves to the full gamut of precertification evaluation modules. However, the FDA said that participants in the test phase may be limited to companies that have a track record in developing software products, seemingly leaving software start-ups out in the cold. Also of note is that this test plan may run beyond 2019, a sign that regulatory innovation is no less a feat than innovation in medical technology.

Paclitaxel Focus of Device Controversy

The technology behind percutaneous treatment for the coronary arteries has advanced much more rapidly than for the peripheral vasculature, but the use of paclitaxel, a chemotherapeutic agent, as a go-to antiproliferative for any part of the anatomy could be near an end. The FDA published a letter to physicians in January stating that a medical journal article suggested that paclitaxel-bearing drug-eluting stents (DESs) and drug-coated balloons (DCBs) for the peripheral arteries had demonstrated an unexpectedly high long-term mortality rate compared to bare-metal stents and non-coated balloons. However, the conclusions drawn in that medical journal are the subject of a dispute that may determine whether paclitaxel has any future at all in the circulatory system.

The article in the Journal of the American Heart Association describes a meta-analysis covering more than two dozen randomized, controlled trials for both DES and DCB devices, all coated with paclitaxel. The authors stated that all-cause death at both two and five years for paclitaxel devices was significantly higher than for their non-eluting counterparts when used in the arteries of the lower extremities, but that more study is warranted, in part because only two of those studies ran for a full five years. The authors hypothesize that the crystalline form of paclitaxel, which has a longer half-life than other formulations, may be the culprit.

Medtronic, the Dublin-based manufacturer of the In.Pact Admiral DCB, took issue with the JAHA authors in an article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, stating that there is no statistically significant difference in mortality between DCBs and plain angioplasty balloons at five years. As is the case with the JAHA analysis, there are a number of moving parts in the Medtronic summary, including that the data are drawn from patients in a variety of nations that exhibit different patterns of post-procedural care, not to mention differences in the use of dual anti-platelet therapy (DAPT). The company argued that much of the difference in mortality outcomes could hinge on the more aggressive use of DAPT in patients treated with bare-metal stents and plain angioplasty balloons.

Whether any of this clinical data will translate into regulatory action is impossible to forecast, but the FDA advised that it still sees the benefit of these devices as outweighing the risks. If Medtronic’s view – that the mortality rates at five years out, at least in statistical terms – wins the day, device makers might be on the hook for nothing more than a somewhat greater post-market surveillance liability. Makers of DCBs might already be on that track, as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) declared it will pay what clinicians and device makers see as a sub-optimal rate for these devices, unless and until CMS sees some compelling data that the difference in cost between DCBs and plain balloons is justified by outcomes.