FDA Closes EUA Program to Lab-Developed Tests

The question of whether the FDA has the authority to regulate lab-developed tests (LDTs) boiled into plain view in August when the Department of Health and Human Services directed the agency to stand down on its regulation of LDTs. The predicament took another turn Oct. 7 when the FDA announced it would no longer review LDTs under the emergency use authorization (EUA) program, a change that was not well received in some quarters.

The HHS order to the FDA arrived with a reference to two executive orders from the Trump administration, but the notice also stated that developers of LDTs could voluntarily file for an EUA or a conventional premarket review. One of the more significant drawbacks described in the rescission order was that any LDTs that did not go through the FDA would not enjoy immunity from litigation under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act. At the time of the HHS announcement, however, there was no signal from the FDA that it would refuse to review LDT filings under the EUA program.

The FAQ page for testing stated, “we are currently in a different phase of the pandemic with respect to tests than we were previously, where many COVID-19 tests are now authorized to be run in labs.” The update states that the agency is prioritizing review of EUA requests for considerations such as public health need and availability of the product.

Among the priorities cited by the FDA are testing that would increase accessibility, such as point-of-care tests and home collection test kits, and tests that consume relatively few supplies. The statement said the FDA was declining to review EUA requests for LDTs “at this time,” suggesting the policy can be reversed if circumstances dictate.

Three members of the House of Representatives took the news as a negative, casting the FDA’s decision as “a grave mistake” that was prompted by officials at HHS. The letter described the change as reckless and as increasing the risk of false negative test results. Another concern voiced by Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) was the abruptness of the announcement, which did not allow the FDA to make changes to previously posted policy announcements.

The American Clinical Laboratory Association (ACLA) provided a brief Oct. 7 statement, making the argument that many of the LDTs that have been granted EUAs are known for reducing the reliance on supplies and for increasing testing capacity. ACLA President Julie Khani said these “are exactly the kinds of tests the FDA has stated it wants to prioritize,” adding that the FDA should continue to review LDTs under the EUA program. Khani also said the announcement “creates unnecessary confusion.”

CMS Cracking Down on CLIA Certification

Two days after the FDA announced its change in policy for LDTs, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced it is targeting clinical laboratories that have lapsed certifications or are conducting tests not included in their certifications. The agency directed these labs to immediately cease any violative testing, although no enforcement action was spelled out in the statement.

The CMS said it has issued 171 cease and desist letters to labs since Aug. 12, 66% of which were for labs that were conducting tests that fell outside their certifications under the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) Act. The other 34% were conducting tests with no CLIA certification at all, and recipients of the CMS letters were required to certify that they had desisted from the violative testing activity. The agency indicated that it had offered labs an expedited review process early in the COVID-19 pandemic, but said there is concern that these labs’ operations could lead to errant tests that would worsen the pandemic. However, the letters were sent with instructions on how to amend the oversights, assuming the recipient lab is interested in resuming the violative testing protocols.

CMS Floats Coverage Policy for Breakthrough Devices

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services recently unveiled a new plan to offer four years of Medicare coverage for any medical devices cleared or approved through the FDA’s breakthrough devices program. The news won raves from medical device associations, but the offer comes with a postmarket study requirement that may exceed the demands usually imposed by the FDA for breakthrough devices.

The CMS announcement describes the terms of the Medicare Coverage of Innovative Technology (MCIT) pathway as providing coverage on the same date as the FDA marketing authorization. This coverage would last four years, an offer that assumes, but does not mandate, that the sponsor of the device continues to collect data in the postmarket realm.

Following the four years of MCIT coverage, that device would have to be covered by one of the conventional Medicare coverage mechanisms. In addition to national and local coverage determinations, the CMS press release cites claim-by-claim decisions as one of the post-MCIT alternatives. However, the agency advised that a coverage with evidence development outcome may follow the fourth year of MCIT coverage, adding that participants may be incentivized to gather postmarket data.

CMS said the MCIT program is available only to breakthrough devices that fit within an existing Medicare benefit category, while coverage is limited to on-label use. Device makers are encouraged to communicate with the CMS during the four-year coverage period, but the agency also suggested that sponsors of MCIT devices communicate their interest in an NCD or LCD before the four years are up.

‘Reasonable and Necessary’ Defined

CMS also offered a definition for the term “reasonable and necessary,” which would eventually be codified in the regulation. This definition would address all coverage decisions, rather than being limited to the scope of the MCIT program.

As described in the regulatory notification, the first prong of the three-part test for whether a device or service meets the definition of reasonable and necessary is whether the device is safe and effective. The second prong stipulates that the device must not be strictly experimental or under investigation for the use in question, but the third prong is more complex and asks whether the device or service is appropriate for Medicare patients.

The process for determining appropriateness can be fairly complicated, starting with determining whether the device’s use is consistent with accepted standards of medical practice. The device or service must also be “at least as beneficial as an existing and medically appropriate alternative,” and must not exceed the patient’s need.

However, CMS is offering an alternative mechanism by which appropriateness can be determined. This approach hinges on whether private payers are covering the item or service, although the sponsor would have to demonstrate that the commercially insured individuals are more or less clinically homogenous with Medicare beneficiaries. Sponsors could entirely eliminate the other standards for appropriateness if they can meet this requirement for commercial payer coverage.

The proposal was met with enthusiasm by the trade associations, including the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed). Scott Whitaker, AdvaMed’s president/CEO, said in an Aug. 31 press release that the proposed rule would “help ensure the patients who need these innovative technologies have access to them.” Executives from several major device makers also lent their support in the AdvaMed statement, including Mike Mussallem, CEO of Edwards Lifesciences, and John Liddicoat, executive VP for the Americas for Medtronic.

Mark Leahey, president/CEO of the Medical Device Manufacturers Association (MDMA), also supported the proposed rule, something Leahey said MDMA “has long advocated.” He said the association would continue to work with the White House, Congress and other stakeholders to “narrow the gap between regulatory and reimbursement decisions that will bolster patient care.”

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.

ONC, CMS Delay Compliance Dates for EHR Interoperability

The COVID-19 pandemic has incurred a number of regulatory casualties in recent weeks, and the final rules for electronic health records (EHRs) promulgated earlier this year are two of the latest among those. Not all aspects of these rules were on the same original compliance deadline, however, and vendors will have to delve into the details of these respective delays to keep them straight.

The Office of the National Coordinator and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services posted a joint statement about the delayed implementation date. ONC director Don Rucker said his agency will offer three months of enforcement discretion to EHR vendors “at the end of … certain compliance dates,” a concession to the pandemic. In contrast, CMS administrator Seema Verma stated that hospitals will generally have an additional six months to implement the related requirements.

The ONC announcement was accompanied by a tabular presentation of revised compliance deadlines, many of which simply add three months onto the original six-month deadline. The roll-out of application programming interface (API) functionality was originally subject to a 24-month compliance date, but now enjoys 27 months of regulatory relief. Many other requirements, such as the information blocking requirement, were initially on a six-month delay from the date of the final rule, but this requirement will not be in force until the end of the year at the earliest. The ONC rule appears in the Federal Register with a date stamp of May 1 and an effective date of June 30.

The CMS stated that the requirements for the patient access API are now in force as of Jan. 1, 2021, the same date as the provider directory API. The CMS requirement for information blocking enjoys a less crisply defined compliance date of “late 2020,” while payer-to-payer data exchange functions must be up and running by Jan. 1, 2022.

FDA Posts AE Reporting Policy

Among the pandemic-related considerations undertaken by the FDA is a policy document spelling out the agency’s expectations regarding adverse event (AE) reporting. The terms of the policy apply to medical products and dietary supplements, and deals with the prospect that COVID-driven absenteeism might hamper a company’s AE reporting program.

The policy, which updates a 2012 guidance addressing influenza outbreaks, allows companies to focus their AE reporting efforts on products related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Affected companies are expected to develop a continuity of operations plan (COOP), which should spell out AE reporting and updates for any events that are stored during the pandemic. Companies should document the start and ending dates of their nations’ emergency declarations as well as the impact of absenteeism on AE reporting.

The FDA says it “does not plan to object” if a company is unable to file AE reports on time due to absenteeism caused by they pandemic, but the affect entities have to file those reports within six months of restoration of normal order of a company’s operations. Companies that can report at least some AEs in a timely fashion must do so, and firms that can file all required reports are expected to make timely reports. If the agency expresses concern about reports in connection with specific products or a particular set of circumstances, the FDA will offer no leniency on the standard reporting requirements, the guidance states.

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.