Device Tax Repealed

After a decade of controversy and infrequent collection, the 2.3% tax on medical devices has been repealed as part of a series of spending bills for fiscal 2020. The bipartisan opposition to the tax made its demise seem inevitable, but the tax did not go down without a fight.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed two spending bills early in the week of Dec. 17, which in addition to the repeal of the device tax called for repeal of the Cadillac tax on premium health plans. Another tax that fell to the spending package was the health insurance tax, and the loss of all three represents a significant blow to the funding mechanisms for the Affordable Care Act. However, a number of other provisions of the ACA have fallen prey to the congressional axe, including the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which was removed by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018.

While the device tax was part of the statute for a decade, it has been infrequently levied on device makers thanks to routine congressional intervention. The latest two-year suspension, the second consecutive 24-month reprieve, was scheduled to expire Dec. 31, and industry and a number of medical societies and others had pleaded with Congress to do away with the tax.

In a Sept. 24, 2019, letter to leaders in the House and Senate, these stakeholders argued that the tax was not only bad for the U.S. economy, it also flew against the recent emphasis on advancing the state of medical science. While the authors do not directly cite the 21st Century Cures Act as a source of tension with the tax, they nonetheless argued that the imposition of the tax from 2013 to 2015 forced the abandonment of numerous R&D projects. Consequently, they said, “patients were denied new treatments.”

The Senate signed off on the spending package Dec. 19 and President Trump finally inked the White House’s approval late in the evening Dec. 20, shortly before funds for government operations were to expire. Scott Whitaker, president/CEO of the Advanced Medical Technology Association, advised Trump in an Oct. 17, 2019, letter that another suspension of the tax would merely renew the uncertainty surrounding the tax. Whitaker said another two-year suspension would force device makers to “plan and act as if the tax will ultimately be imposed on them.”

Some Sources of Uncertainty Remain

The demise of the tax comes shortly after the Senate affirmed Stephen Hahn as the new commissioner of the FDA. Hahn was confirmed in a Dec. 12 vote that affirmed the Trump administration’s nominee with a 72-18 majority, bringing to a close another source of uncertainty for device makers. Hahn’s background is in oncology, a sharp departure from the policy-driven expertise of his predecessor, Scott Gottlieb.

Despite these larger developments, device makers are facing a number of questions as the new year comes into view. The FDA software precertification pilot program is still apparently underway despite the agency’s vow to wrap up the pilot by the end of 2019, and the discussion draft regarding artificial intelligence has not yet advanced past the stage of an FDA talking point.

Another major sticking point for device makers is the matter of patent subject matter eligibility, which is the subject of a petition for cert to the U.S. Supreme Court. While the impact of recent Supreme Court case law has affected software in addition to in vitro diagnostics, the Patent and Trademark Office has developed examiner guidelines that have eased the pressure on software patents. Nonetheless, IVD developers and the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit are unmollified over what they see as a jurisprudential animus against diagnostic and other life science patents. Whether the Supreme Court will revisit the matter is unclear, but the case in question will be distributed for conference as of Jan. 10, 2020.

A Look Ahead to 2019

2018 was anything but a slow year for regulatory developments in the world of medical technology, but there is still plenty to look forward to for 2019. Following are several key developments that will do much to shape the prospects for industry going forward.

Rules of Civil Procedure Revised

This first item is not an FDA regulatory matter, but refers to something that took place in early December 2018, although the real impact is unlikely to be felt until 2019 starts to unwind. The Advisory Committee on Civil Rules had amended several of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure earlier in the year, and those changes, including those applied to Rule 23, went into force Dec. 1.

One of the changes to Rule 23 allows the use of one or more electronic methods of contacting members of a class action regarding settlements, but a more significant change is in the method for dealing with bad objectors. Up to Dec. 1, a court had to approve the withdrawal of each individual objection to a settlement, but that requirement is no longer in force. Those whose objections are seen as an impediment to a reasonable settlement can simply withdraw their objections without forcing the court through a time-consuming review of the objection. While there are other issues related to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure that are in need of redress, these latest changes should at least expedite the process considerably.

Device Tax Again Topical

Despite that it is not scheduled to resume until after 2019, the 2.3 percent tax on medical devices is again in the news thanks to the prospect that it might be pushed back an additional five years. That is the stated intent in connection with legislation that would provide some fixes for the tax overhaul signed into law at the end of 2017.

That legislation, which arose from the House Ways and Means Committee, seems to have been pushed aside by the latest budget impasse, however, although the fact that the tax does not resume for another year should give industry some comfort. Device makers will argue that their budgeting for activities such as research and development require more than a 12-month window, but it is not at all clear whether House Democrats are interested in H.R. 88 as currently written, if at all. Consequently, it seems at least somewhat likely that the device tax suspension will once again come down to the 11th hour.

As an aside, the budget problem involves the FDA budget, and one line of thinking is that the stand-off between the White House and Capitol Hill has better odds of resolution once the 116th Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3. In the meantime, user fees are funding much of the agency’s work, but routine manufacturing facility inspections may be held up in the meantime.

FDA’s Clinical Lab Regulation

This issue has been percolating for several years now, and includes an FDA discussion paper published in early 2017. That effort has been supplanted by a “technical assistance” provided to Congress in August 2018.

The original impetus for the FDA’s technical assistance was to help Congress refine the Diagnostic Accuracy and Innovation Act, but that bill has given way to the Verifying Accurate Leading-edge IVCT Development Act of 2018. Both bills were primarily sponsored by Reps. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) although the VALID Act is still in the form of a discussion draft, according to DeGette’s congressional webpage.

The bill makes reference to a precertification concept similar to that seen in digital health, which would be applied to moderate-risk tests, while high-risk tests would still be subject to the more traditional premarket review processes. Other interested parties include Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who said in a statement that supporters will push the bill in the 116th Congress, suggesting that 2019 might finally be the year that the agency’s clunky approach to diagnostics regulation will receive a much-needed overhaul.

Guidance Agenda for 2019

The FDA’s device center is always busily compiling a new round of guidances, but one of the priority guidances of interest as announced in the device guidance agenda is a draft for demonstrating substantial equivalence through the use of performance criteria. This draft will pertain to abbreviated 510(k)s, according to the CDRH guidance agenda, but this draft might be as important as any that will emerge in this new year, thanks in part to what some observers are likely to see as an end run around the statute. The agency announced it would revisit the 510(k) program in an November announcement which also evinced some hostility toward the substantial equivalence standard.

There are a number of existing guidances that may be up for review as well, including the 1999 guidance for surgical mesh 510(k)s. That document is on the agenda for the obvious reason, including that the agency has up-classified these meshes for at least one indication, not to mention the ongoing patient concerns about mesh implants that have gone bad.