Auld Acquaintance; 2017 Guidances and 2018 Enforcement

2017 is now a part of the past, and everyone has their own idea as to which were the most crucial developments of the year. Following is a nomination for two FDA guidances that are at least strong candidates for the title of the most important guidances of 2017, along with developments in two ongoing dramas that could prove pivotal in this new year.

What’s Old is New (yet) Again

The FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health had little to offer in the way of guidances in the first half of 2017, but the center made up for that in a big way in the latter part of the year. CDRH issued 19 draft and final guidances in the last three months of the year, but the month of September was a busy one, too.

Still, the most important guidances might not have been the most widely discussed. The October final guidance for 510(k) changes and the companion software 510(k) changes final guidance might not have the splash value of the agency’s moves in the digital health realm, but it’s easy to forget how long the 510(k) changes controversy has strained relations between the FDA and industry.

Thinking back to the legacy K97 guidance of 1997, this discussion has been the subject of formal regulatory interest for only 20 years despite that the Medical Device Amendments were added to the statute more than 40 years ago. The agency took a stab at rewriting K97 in 2011, but that attempt proved futile thanks to the opposition it triggered.

Traditionally, the estimates of the number of 510(k) clearances each year is somewhere between 3,500 and 4,000, a much greater number than the volume of original PMAs, which hasn’t hit 100 in recent memory, if ever. Are digital health guidances “hotter” in terms of novelty and hence media coverage?

Apparently, but make no mistake: The 510(k) program and the agency’s overarching administration thereof is easily the most important regulatory development in calendar year 2017, particularly given that the new med tech regulations in Europe could drive a lot of traffic back to American shores.

2018: Commercial Speech Comes of Age?

2017 was a regulatory banner year for med tech, thanks to the 21st Century Cures Act and the provisions of the fourth device user fee agreement, so it’s difficult to see how 2018 can measure up. Still, this new year has at least one blockbuster story in store if recent remarks by FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb are any indication.

Gottlieb said the agency needs “a legally enforceable set of rules” where commercial speech is concerned, a nod to recent court losses, such as Caronia. Hence, Gottlieb’s said the FDA “can’t be operating from a platform where our regulations might be perpetually in conflict with the courts.”

The agency’s January 2017 draft guidance for payer communications is still in draft form, but that’s to be expected with the change in the commissioner’s office, particularly a commissioner with Gottlieb’s views on the commercial speech question. Another consideration is that a payer communication framework might be the lowest hanging of the several commercial speech questions, and there was little indication at the time that the FDA had adopted a less restrictive approach to off-label communications to physicians.

Gottlieb’s comments from September 2017 suggest he wants the agency to provide industry with some rules of the road for the entirety of the commercial speech problem, but the agency’s chief counsel, Rebecca Wood, avoided the subject in her prepared remarks to a gathering of the Food and Drug Law Institute in early December 2017. The net effect is something of a black box inside which the regulatory version of Schrödinger’s cat awaits our collective scrutiny, but Gottlieb seems determined to settle this matter by one means or another, even if there is some understandable skepticism as to the durability of any resolution. This is a matter worth watching as we move into 2018.

Yates Memo; Up for Grabs?

On the other hand, those who are concerned about a hangover from the Yates memo might be encouraged by the fact that FDA’s Woods conceded that it is time for the FDA to revisit the question of vicarious criminal liability in Park doctrine cases. The question here is whether the agency and the Department of Justice are on the same page, given that these two parties have not necessarily agreed on these issues in the past.

The corporate liability question seems ripe for review if only because Sally Quillian Yates is no longer at the Department of Justice, but deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein acknowledged that the Yates memo is under review in a speech to the Heritage Foundation in September 2017. Although he offered no details other than to affirm that prosecution of individuals is still seen as important as a deterrent, he stated, “I do anticipate that we may in the near future make an announcement about what changes we are going to make to corporate fraud principles.”

Rosenstein confirmed in an October 2017 speech to New York University that the memo is still in play, explaining that any changes “will reflect our resolve to hold individuals accountable for corporate wrongdoing.” However, Rosenstein also said federal attorneys will not be permitted to “use criminal authority unfairly to extract civil payments.”

While there are few tea leaves to work with, the statement about the use of criminal authority to extract civil payments is at the very least some indicator as to where DoJ may be headed. On the other hand, there are those who worry that the prison sentences handed down in the case of Jack De Coster and Peter De Coster could be part of an emerging pattern despite that the De Costers’ egg businesses routinely and egregiously ran afoul of the law over a period of decades. The corporate prosecution story is clearly another story worth tracking as we work through this new year.