About crobertson

Christopher Robertson is a professor at the James E. Rogers College of Law, University of Arizona, and affiliated faculty with the Petrie Flom Center for Health Care Policy, Bioethics and Biotechnology at Harvard. Robertson also leads the Regulatory Science program, a partnership with the Arizona Health Sciences Center and the Critical Path Institute. Professor Robertson's research focuses on how the law can improve decisions by individuals and institutions -- attending to informational limits, conflicting interests, and cognitive biases, especially in the domain of healthcare. Blending legal, philosophical, and empirical methods, Robertson's work has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine, New York University Law Review, Cornell Law Review, Emory Law Journal, and the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies. He has received research support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and runs the Law and Behavior Research Lab at the University of Arizona. Robertson graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he also served as a Petrie Flom fellow and lecturer. He earned a doctorate in Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, where he also taught bioethics. For 2013-2014, he was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, and will visit at NYU School of Law in 2016-2017. Robertson's legal practice has focused on complex litigation involving medical and scientific disputes.

How the FDA Produces Knowledge (and Is Not So Weird)

Credit: SalFalko

The Federal government has wrested billions of dollars from the drug and device industry in settlements of claims that the companies broke the law by promoting their products “off-label” for uses not approved by the FDA.  In response, companies have asserted that promotions are a form of speech, protected by the First Amendment. Speech regulations are especially worrisome when motivated by paternalism.  This argument has received some traction in the courts, and is now getting a favorable look by the Trump administration.

I have argued (here, here, and here) that this law is not actually a speech regulation.  Nor is it paternalistic.  Instead, it is simply a vanilla regulation of a behavior (shipment of product in interstate commerce), which depends on various sources of evidence (including speech) as revealing whether the actor has an illicit intent (an unapproved use of the product).  The pre-market approval system, which requires that companies prove safety and efficacy for all intended uses, solves a collective action problem to produce information as a public good.  This is our key social mechanism for producing knowledge about safety and efficacy.  If this law is unconstitutional in the off-label context, the entire pre-market approval system would seem to be as well.

In a new piece out on SSRN, my physician co-author Victor Laurion develops the example of the drug Seroquel XR, to show how a federal prosecution for off-label promotion caused the company to perform scientific research on two new indications (general anxiety disorder and major depression).  A detailed discussion of the regulatory record shows how physician prescribing was improved by this public information, regardless of whether the FDA approved the new indication.  In this way, the FDA protects the liberty of physicians and patients to try drugs for new uses, even while holding companies to the proof of any uses that they actually intend.  The fact that the company’s intention is shown by speech evidence is immaterial. Continue reading

OPENING: Fellow / VAP — Regulatory Science

ua_stack_rgbThe University of Arizona seeks to hire an early-career scholar (post-doctoral) to support its innovative Regulatory Science Program, a collaboration between the James E. Rogers College of Law and University of Arizona Health Sciences.  This idea of regulatory science is to “modernize our evaluation and approval processes to ensure that innovative products reach the patients who need them, when they need them.”  This mission includes both the regulation of the scientific process, especially the protection of human subjects and privacy, and the production of science to answer regulatory questions about safety and efficacy, for all FDA-regulated products, including drugs, biologics, devices, and diagnostics.

The Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) position is a two-year academic commitment.  Initially, the VAP will focus on independent and collaborative research, while also teaching in the Regulatory Science Colloquium.  The Fellow/VAP will also teach one or more core classes at the law school. In both years, the Fellow/VAP will be part of the academic community of the College, with scholarly mentoring, opportunities to workshop drafts in progress, and a budget for research assistance and professional development.
Continue reading

Is it legal for Trump to punish health insurers that do not support repeal of Obamacare?

By Christopher Robertson

In a recent story about how the health insurance marketplaces are being destabilized by the Trump administration’s vacillation, the LA Times reports:

At one recent meeting, Seema Verma, whom Trump picked to oversee the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs, stunned insurance industry officials by suggesting a bargain: The administration would fund the CSRs if insurers supported the House Republican bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

For what its worth, the Trump administration denied that she had done so.  But if she did, is that legal?  Can politicians actually offer to give money from the Federal Treasury to companies in exchange for their political support (or withhold it for lack of that support)?  If Ms. Verma was corruptly offering a “quid pro quo” exchange (as TalkingPointsMemo says), that would fit the statutory definition of the crime of bribery, as I discuss in a 2016 paper, The Appearance and Reality of Quid Pro Quo Corruption. However, this case also implicates the First Amendment rights of the insurance companies to support or oppose the Obamacare repeal. Continue reading

Conflict of Interests Disclosures Come to PubMed

By Christopher Robertson

Scholars and policymakers have long been concerned that the biomedical science literature — and thus the practice of medicine — is biased by the companies who fund research on their own products.  Prior research has shown that industry-funded studies tend to produce results favorable to their company sponsors.  One solution is disclosure of industry funding, so that physicians and other consumers of the biomedical literature can weigh scientific findings accordingly.

My prior work with Aaron Kesselheim, Susannah Rose, and others has found that adding such disclosures to biomedical abstracts could make a big difference — physicians understand them and will rely upon them.  Nonetheless, most journals bury the disclosures at the end of articles, which are often hidden behind paywalls and not nearly as salient as the methods and findings displayed in the abstract.  For the Institutional Corruption Lab of the Edmond J. Safra Center, I worked with a team of hackers to create a browser extension that proves the feasibility of adding those disclosures into PubMed, a Federal government database of the scientific literature.

Thankfully, that browser extension is becoming obsolete, as the National Library of Medicine (part of the NIH) has begun implementing such disclosures themselves, right in PubMed.   A search reveals that nearly 80,000 abstracts now have such tags.  While a lot in absolute terms, it is a small minority of the 17 million abstracts covered by PubMed.  Commentators have suggested that as much as 70% of the funding for clinical trials comes from industry, so we should expect millions of abstracts to have such disclosures.

Thus we are still a long way from comprehensive and effective disclosure.  There are two problems. Continue reading

Another Way to Cut Medical Malpractice Damages?

By Christopher Robertson

To limit liability and increase predictability, scholars and policymakers have long focused on capping damages awards.  In particular, they have been worried that there are many runaway jury awards for non-economic damages (i.e., pain and suffering).  Because these are not based on tallies of medical bills or lost wages, these are the least predictable component of the jury’s award.   Still, statutory caps on damages effectively nullify the jury’s determination (and the trial judge’s oversight) of how much to compensate a plaintiff for pain and suffering.  The laws substitute an arbitrary maximum instead (which, in many states, has not adjusted with decades of inflation).

There is now a cottage industry of scholarship that tries to understand the effects of these state caps on payouts, the supply of physicians, liability insurance, economic damages awards, and the aggregate cost of medical care (which may decrease or increase).  (See a synthesis of the literature.)

In new work with John Cambpell and Bernard Chao, I study a different way to cabin jury awards for non-economic damages.  Rather than capping runaway awards ex post, some states have tried to prevent them in the first place, by manipulating what a jury hears in closing arguments.   Continue reading

National Survey Suggests that Off-Label Status is Material to Informed Consent

By Christopher Robertson

As many readers of this blog know, the FDA requires that, prior to entering the market, companies prove safety and efficacy for each intended use of their products, but physicians are then free to prescribe the products for any other uses.  (Companies are not allowed to promote off-label uses however.)

A recent national survey by Consumer Reports includes two interesting findings:

  1. About two-thirds (63%) of Americans “would not take a doctor prescribed medication that has been approved by the FDA, but not for their specific condition.”
  2. Almost all Americans (94%) “say they have never been told by a physician that a medication they were taking was not approved by the FDA for their condition.”

Patients are right to be skeptical of off-label uses, though they may not appreciate just how common they are.  In fact, most off-label use is unsupported by scientific evidence as to safety and efficacy.  A new report by the FDA illustrates several off-label uses that were subjected to rigorous clinical trials and turned out to be ineffective or dangerous.   For example, Aliskiren is approved for treatment of hypertension and was used off-label for prevention of congestive heart failure (CHF) complications.  A large trial showed that, although it did not significantly improve CHF mortality, it did significantly increase rates of kidney failure for CHF patients.  We do not know how many other off-label uses would fail if similarly tested.   Continue reading

The ACA’s Real Effect: Moving the Goalposts

By Christopher Robertson

“I believe and I look forward to working with you to make certain that every single American has access to the highest-quality care and coverage that is possible. … [W]e believe it’s appropriate to put in place a system that gives every person the financial feasibility to be able to purchase the coverage that they want for themselves and for their family.”

That quote is not from Barack Obama.  It’s from Trump HHS nominee Tom Price, and it shows just how successfully the ACA has shifted the American political landscape towards universal coverage. As I argued earlier this month in STAT, with Glenn Cohen and Holly Fernandez Lynch, the debate is now about how to get universal health insurance coverage, rather than whether to do so.

Republicans will of course favor market-oriented approaches, and they will find difficulty conceiving a plan that is farther to the right than the ACA itself while actually achieving the goals that Price promises.  But for now, even if the ACA is soon repealed, it has succeeded in moving the goalposts for health policy.

Income-Scaling of Cost-Sharing Gains Traction

By Christopher Robertson

With 148,000 members, the American College of Physicians (ACP) is the largest medical-speciality organization.  This summer, its board released a new report on the growing financial burdens faced by patients who enjoy health insurance but are nonetheless exposed to unbearably large costs for healthcare.  At the end of the day, cost-sharing is just the absence of insurance for those costs.

ACP calls for a range of reforms, including “income-adjusted cost-sharing approaches that reduce or directly subsidize the expected out-of-pocket contribution of lower-income workers to avoid creating a barrier to their obtaining needed care.”  As I have argued, the Affordable Care Act includes income-based subsidies for cost-sharing in the Marketplaces, but these are currently being challenged in court, and do not apply to the employer-based system or Medicare, which together cover the vast majority of patients.

Hillary Clinton has also advanced a plan to create progressive refundable tax credits for people who spend more than 5% of their income out-of-pocket.   The advantage of such a tax-based approach is that it reaches patients regardless of where they get their insurance (except for Medicare, which is excluded).  The disadvantage is that it leaves people in a state of financial insecurity until they get their refunds.  A better approach would scale cost-sharing exposure in the first place, a power that I have suggested is already available under Federal law and which is self-funding.

Fighting the Next Pandemic: Airline Vaccine Screens

By Christopher Robertson

Whether it is Ebola, H1N1, the season flu, or the next nasty bug that we cannot yet even imagine, if we wanted to efficiently spread the disease, one could not do much better than packing several Flight routeshundred people into a cylinder for a few hours, while they eat, drink, defecate, and urinate.  Even more, to make sure that the disease cannot be contained in a particular locality, we could build thousands of those cylinders and move them rapidly from one place to another worldwide, remix the people, and put them back in the cylinders for return trips back to their homes, schools, and jobs.

We are (hopefully) not going to stop airline travel.  But we can make it a lot safer, by ensuring that almost everyone who boards these flights is vaccinated.  That’s the thesis of a new paper out this week.

Airlines carry two million people every day.  And, prior research has shown that airline travel is a vector of disease.  In fact, when the September 11 attacks caused airline travel to fall, seasonal flu diagnoses fell too.

The threat of pandemics is quite real, and more generally, the mortality and morbidity associated with infectious disease is a severe public health burden.  About 42,000 adults and 300 children die every year from vaccine-preventable disease.  New vaccines are on the horizon.

Arguably, airlines have market-based and liability-based reasons to begin screening passengers, whether for vaccinations generally or for particular ones during an outbreak.  Although the states have traditionally exercised the plenary power to mandate vaccinations, and have primarily focused on children in schools, the U.S. federal government also has substantial untapped power to regulate in this domain as well.

Recent Developments in Off-Label Promotion

By Chris Robertson

July has been a busy month for those following the controversy around off-label promotion of drugs and devices.  As many on this blog know, federal law requires that prior to marketing any drug or device, companies must prove to the FDA’s satisfaction that it is safe and effective for all intended uses.  If the company reveals that it intends unapproved uses,  sales of the drug or device are illegal.  Nonetheless, physicians can prescribe “off-label,” and companies are free to sell for those known-but-not-intended purposes.

This carefully-wrought policy may seem convoluted, but it serves important epistemic and economic purposes, as I have argued elsewhere.  This month, I have a new draft paper on SSRN, assessing recent assertions of a First Amendment right to promote for uses not approved by the FDA, and consider whether such a right would be equally applicable to drugs that have no FDA-approved label at all. I worry that the entire pre-market approval regime may be at stake. Feedback on that intentionally-provocative analysis is quite welcome.

On Wednesday, two medical device company executives, were convicted of promoting a product “to deliver steroid medications to patients’ sinuses, though it was only approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for keeping sinuses open.”  The prosecutors thought the case was particularly egregious, because the company had intended the broader use to deliver medicine all along, but sought to mislead the FDA, denying it the chance review the safety and efficacy of the real intended use.  The jury instructions and verdict form  are particularly interesting, to see how the government’s trial strategy avoids the holding of a Second Circuit case of Caronia, which overturned a conviction on First Amendment grounds.  I’ll return with some analysis later. Continue reading

Webcast: Dennis on Precision Medicine and Cancer Pathology

The Regulatory Science Series at University of Arizona

presents

Eslie Dennis, MD,
Vice President and Head Global Medical Affairs Ventana Medical Systems, Inc., a member of Roche Group

speaking on 

“Cancer, Pathology, and Precision Medicine:  Virchow Revisited Through Grogan’s Lens”

Available live at 3PM Eastern Apr 6 and archived at https://goo.gl/NGEBPt

Bill Sage Webcast on Health Law v. Health Policy

As part of the Regulatory Science series at University of Arizona:
Health Law and Health Policy: A Frictional Account
William M. Sage, MD, JD, University of Texas
Today 12/2 — Noon (AZ Time) / 2pm Eastern / 11am Pacific
The talk will be webcast live, and available as an archive:

https://streaming.biocom.arizona.edu/event/index.cfm?id=26074

Participants in the live webcast will have the opportunity submit questions and comments.  Please do!

10/14: Webcast on the NIH’s Efforts to Support Translational Science

This month’s Regulatory Science Series presentation features Dr. Keith Joiner, MD, MPH, the Director of the Center for Management Innovations in Health Care at the Eller College of Management, and former Dean of the University of Arizona College of Medicine. He will present on NIH Efforts to Support Translational Science and discuss the importance of government funding policy to the regulatory science endeavor.

This event will stream live at 12:00 PM MT on Wednesday, October 14, 2015, at:  https://streaming.biocom.arizona.edu/event/index.cfm?id=26072.

The University of Arizona Regulatory Science Program is a partnership with the James E. Rogers College of Law and University of Arizona Health Sciences.

Wednesday Webcast: “Gene Patenting, Innovation Incentives, and the Future of Intellectual Property” by Derek Bambauer

By Christopher Robertson

This week, my colleague Derek Bambauer will speak as part of the Regulatory Science series at the University of Arizona.  Free CLE attendance form and readings are available.

Tune in at 12:00pm (Pacific) / 3:00pm (Eastern) on Wed Sept 16.

https://streaming.biocom.arizona.edu/event/?id=26071

The talk will also be archived at the same link.

New DTCA Guidance — Enough to Empower Consumers?

Bill of Health contributor Christopher T. Robertson has a new Op-Ed out in the New England Journal of Medicine:

As one of only two countries that permit direct-to-consumer advertising (DTCA) of pharmaceuticals, the United States tasks the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with regulating that advertising to ensure that it doesn’t mislead consumers. When a drug maker publishes or broadcasts a claim that its drug has benefits in a particular disease, the FDA requires it to include information on the product’s risks as well. Since it’s not feasible for companies to include all the important information about their products in a television ad, the FDA requires them to refer viewers to more complete information, such as that in a printed magazine ad. Companies have tended to comply with this requirement by supplementing colorful, persuasive ads with one or two pages of dry text providing the required disclosures, often simply using language that the FDA has approved for other purposes, such as package inserts for prescribers. But research shows that most patients who attempt to read these disclosures find them difficult to understand, and many don’t even try to make sense of them.1 Now, the FDA is in the process of adjusting its DTCA rules, aiming to provide greater assurance that patients receive due warning of the most significant risks — but its tweaks probably don’t go far enough to really empower consumers to make smart decisions about the drugs they put into their bodies. […]

Read the full article here.

North, West, and the Direction of FDA Enforcement in the Social Media Age

By Christopher Robertson

Co-blogged with University of Arizona Fellow, Jonathan Loe

Breathlessly, many news outlets reported yesterday that Kim Kardashian West was in trouble with the FDA for misleading social media advertising of the drug Diclegis. For example, the reliably hyperbolic Daily Mail led with “Kim Kardashian slammed by FDA.” 

As followers of this blog may not know, Mrs. Kardashian West is pregnant with her second child.  Following on the disappointing news that the soon-to-be sibling of baby “North West” will not be named South, the celebrity-for-celebrity’s-sake shared a post on Instagram (and Facebook, and linked to from Twitter, naturally).  The post announced for the world that “OMG” her “#morningsickness” had benefited from a prescription of Diclegis—with “no increased risk to the baby.” The FDA issued a warning letter, because the social media post failed to communicate any risk information.

But is the FDA really concerned with people, however famous, commenting on their personal experiences with drugs?

The answer is…

Continue reading

The Empire Strikes Back on Conflicts of Interest (COI) in Medicine

By Christopher Robertson

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) spent the month of May with an artillery barrage against the idea that conflicts of interest in medicine are at all problematic, with a series of three longish opinion pieces (here’s one) by Lisa Rosenbaum, amounting to nearly 10,000 words of text overall, plus an editorial by Jeffrey Drazen.  At the very least, this format and sheer commitment of pages signals that changes are on the horizon for NEJM, rolling back at least some of the 25-years of regulations about conflicts of interest.  In substance, the papers careen between skepticism about whether commercial bias exists at all, and the cynical view that there is so much bias from so many commercial and non-commercial sources that resistance is futile.

This week, three former NEJM editors (Robert Steinbrook, Jerome Kassirer, and Marcia Angell) fire back from across the Atlantic in the BMJ.  In the 1400 words allowed in the essay format, the rebuttal cannot meet the onslaught in sheer volume, but it does call out some of the excesses, including Rosenbaum’s strange suggestion that “honest debate” has been “stifled” and the sky-is-falling notion that regulation of COIs “prevent the dissemination of expertise.”  If the Rosenbaum papers had been submitted to traditional peer review procedures, engaging subject-matter experts from the fields of psychology, law, and ethics, I think that the worst of these could have been avoided.

The BMJ authors also call out the burden-shifting on the core empirical questions about whether conflicts of interest are problematic and whether they can be effectively regulated.  In my view, there is plenty of basic science research to show how COIs can create biases and undermine trust.  The remaining questions are just cost-benefit analyses about how best to regulate.

I am not sure that I would follow the BMJ authors all the way to their own unqualified thesis that, “Put simply, financial conflicts of interest in medicine are not beneficial, despite strained attempts to justify them and to make a virtue of self interest.”    The relationship between profit and health is contingent.  In some instances, profit-seeking behavior does in fact promote health.  When profit-seeking detracts from health, that’s when we need thoughtful regulation.

Open Payments: Early Impact And The Next Wave Of Reform

This new post by Tony Caldwell and Christopher Robertson appears on the Health Affairs Blog, as part of a series stemming from the Third Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event held at Harvard Law School on Friday, January 30, 2015.

The Physician Payments Sunshine Act, a provision in the Affordable Care Act, seeks to increase the transparency of the financial relationships between medical device and drug manufacturers, physicians, and teaching hospitals. Launched on September 30, 2014 by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), the Open Payments database collects information about these financial relationships and makes that information available to the public.

As of early February, the Open Payments database includes documentation of 4.45 million payments valued at nearly $3.7 billion made from medical device and pharmaceutical manufacturers to 546,000 doctors and 1,360 teaching hospitals between August 2013 and December 2013. This included 1.7 million records (totaling $2.2 billion) without the names of physicians or teaching hospitals who received the payments.

These records were intentionally de-identified by CMS because the records had not been available for review and dispute for 45 days, or because the records were not matched by CMS to a single physician or teaching hospital due to missing or inconsistent information within the submitted records. Future reports will be published annually and will include data collections from a full 12 month period. […]

Continue reading here.

Call for nominations for an Outstanding Junior Scholars Award from RWJF’s Public Health Law Research Program

By Christopher Robertson

Do you know of a doctoral student or scholar who finished his or her last degree in 2009 or later, and who has produced excellent empirical research on the relation of law or legal practices to population health?  If so, please consider submitting a nomination by December 10.  It’s quick and easy.