Virginia’s Proposed Lethal Injection Secrecy Law

By Elizabeth Guo

On Monday, Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia proposed a significant change to the Virginia legislature’s bill to replace lethal injection with electrocution in death penalty cases. Instead of allowing electrocution, the amendment would give greater authority to the Department of Corrections (DOC) for procuring and making lethal injection drugs. Under the proposed amendments, the DOC could contract with a pharmacy to compound drugs necessary to carry out lethal injection. The amendments would also keep the names of drug suppliers and compounders secret by exempting the information from the Freedom of Information Act. Also, the names would not be discoverable “in any civil proceeding unless good cause is shown.”

States with capital punishment are increasingly resorting to state secrecy laws as they are finding it harder to procure the lethal injection drugs they need. At least fourteen states have passed or tried to pass rules keeping the names of lethal injection suppliers confidential. Some states, such as Georgia, define information about the drugs and equipment used in an execution as a “confidential state secret” so that the public prisoners and even courts are prevented from viewing the information. Other states, including Oklahoma, do not designate this information as a state secret but nonetheless, make the information unavailable through litigation. A few states allow litigants to discover the information through litigation, but the state does not need to make the information publicly available.

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FDA’s Relationship with Marijuana: It’s Complicated

By Elizabeth Guo

Marijuana and marijuana-derived products are top of mind for state legislatures these days. On March 10, the Virginia state legislature passed a bill legalizing cannabidiol oil, a marijuana-derived product, for patients who suffer from epilepsy. Other legislatures are actively debating measures to legalize cannabis-related products in their states, and many of these legislative proposals would allow cannabis-use for patients suffering from specific medical conditions. Last week, the Alabama state legislature debated a bill that would allow people to take cannabidiol to treat certain conditions, and Utah recently defeated a bill that would have allowed people with certain debilitating conditions to use a marijuana-related extract.

As more states pass bills allowing patients to use marijuana-derived products, will state laws clash with federal policies implemented by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)?

Marijuana is complicated. Marijuana refers to the dried leaves and flowers of the cannabis plant. All marijuana plants contain a mixture of molecules, including cannabinoids. Different cannabinoids can have different effects, and scientists have identified more than 200 different cannabinoids from marijuana plants. Some of the most well known cannaboids in marijuana include tetrahydrocannibonol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), and archidonoyl ethanolamide (anandamide). Continue reading

Can the United States Use Mortgage-Like Loans to Pay for High Cost Drugs?

By Elizabeth Guo

Pharmaceutical companies are making breakthrough drugs to cure diseases, but no one knows how to pay for them. In 2013 and 2014, FDA approved Solvaldi and Harmoni, which can cure hepatitis C in more than 90% of patients. Solvaldi and Harmoni cost $84,000 and $95,000, respectively, for a standard course of treatment. Government payers and health plans, without a good solution for providing Solvaldi and Harmoni to patients who need them, have restricted coverage of the drug to only those patients with advanced hepatitis C. Last year, Germany approved Glybera, a gene therapy that enables patients with lipoprotein lipase deficiency to produce the deficient enzyme. Glybera is expected to cost $1 million, and it is doubtful whether any payer could shoulder such a price.

Last week, MIT professor Andrew Lo proposed a new way of paying for these high-priced therapies: securitized consumer healthcare loans (HCLs). HCLs would function as mortgages for large healthcare expenses. Because the benefits of some therapies occur upfront, HCLs would allow consumers to pay for the value of their therapies over time, instead of in one upfront payment. The paper proposed two frameworks to govern HCLs. The first is a consumer-funded loan, where the patient borrows a loan to pay the upfront costs of the drug, and pays back the loan over time. The second framework operates similarly to the consumer-funded loan, except that private payers and government agencies assume the debt. Under this model, insurance companies could take the debt associated with the patient’s treatment then shift the debt onto the next payer if the patient changes insurance companies. Continue reading

President Obama Introduces Evidence Generation Strategy to Reduce High Drug Costs

By Elizabeth Guo

Addressing the high cost of drugs was at the top of President Obama’s list in his fiscal year 2017 budget, released last week. Many of his proposals were familiar. The President hoped to increase manufacturer contributions to prescription drug coverage under Medicare Part D and wanted to shorten the length of biologic market exclusivity from twelve to seven years. These proposals were also in the President’s fiscal year 2016 budget but were not put into place.

However, the budget also included a number of surprising, new proposals that underscore how post-market evidence might play an increasing role in controlling drug prices in coming years. Rachel Sachs has written about the role that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) can play in keeping down drug prices, and it seems like some of these ideas are gaining traction:

Modify reimbursement of Part B drugs. The White House estimates that changes to Medicare Part B payments could save the country $7.75 billion over ten years. Medicare Part B covers drugs and services dispensed in an outpatient setting. Many of the most expensive biologic drugs are currently covered under Medicare Part B. The budget proposal did not elaborate on how the White House hopes to change Part B payments, but the proposal likely refers to recommendations released by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) last June. MedPAC’s 2015 report recommended that Congress link Part B payments to clinical effectiveness evidence. For example, the government could group drugs with similar health effects and pay all drugs in each group the rate of least costly product in the group. This approach relies on having reliable clinical effectiveness data so that researchers can easily compare the relative effectiveness of two or more drugs. Continue reading

Why Senator Markey’s Message Hurts Children

Last week, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) placed a hold on the Senate’s nomination of Robert Califf’s as head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The move was less against Califf and more as political leverage against FDA’s approval of OxyContin. In August 2015, FDA approved OxyContin, a prescription painkiller, for pediatric patients ages 11 to 17. OxyContin is the painkiller most associated with United State’s prescription drug abuse epidemic, accounting for an increase in drug overdose and death over the last decade. FDA’s approval of OxyContin for children drew concern from Markey and others that the approval would lead to an increase in drug misuse for children and their family members. Markey, who has prioritized the fight against opioid addiction in his legislative agenda, hopes he can use the hold to convince FDA to reverse its August decision.

Senator Markey’s message is well intentioned, but may ultimately do more harm than good for children.

Before FDA approved OxyContin in August, children who suffered from severe, chronic pain due to cancer, extensive trauma, or serious surgeries had few drugs approved to treat their pain. Many physicians treating severe pain in children prescribed OxyContin off-label, without proof that OxyContin could safely and effectively treat children. These physicians often relied on their experience or intuition to not under or overprescribe the drug. FDA’s approval in August meant the pharmaceutical manufacturer finally provided physicians with instructions, backed by controlled studies, explaining how physicians could safely use OxyContin to treat children with severe pain. Continue reading

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Physician Coverage under the ACA

By Elizabeth Guo

A recent study in JAMA by Dorner, Jacobs, and Sommers released some good and bad news about provider coverage under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The study examined whether health plans offered on the federal marketplace in 34 states offered a sufficient number of physicians in nine specialties. For each plan, the authors searched for the number of providers covered under each specialty in each state’s most populous county. Plans without specialist physicians were labeled specialist-deficient plans. The good: roughly 90% of the plans covered more than five providers in each specialty. The bad: 19 plans were specialist-deficient and 9 of 34 states had at least one specialty deficient plan. Endocrinology, psychiatry, and rheumatology were the most commonly excluded specialties.

Here’s where it gets ugly.

Excluding certain specialists from coverage can be a way for insurers to discriminate against individuals with certain conditions by excluding them from their plans. By excluding rheumatologists, insurers may prevent enrolling individuals with rheumatoid arthritis; by excluding endocrinologists, insurers may prevent enrolling individuals with diabetes. Individuals with chronic conditions need to see specialists more frequently than healthier adults, and how easily a patient with chronic conditions can see a specialist can affect his health care outcomes.

The study adds to the growing body of empirical research showing that even after the ACA, insurers may be structuring their plans to potentially discriminate against individuals with significant chronic conditions. In January, Jacobs and Sommers published a study showing that some plans were discriminating against patients with HIV/AIDS through adverse tiering by placing all branded and generic HIV/AIDS drugs on the highest formulary tier. Another study found that 86% of plans place all medicines in at least one class on the highest cost-sharing tier. These studies show that despite being on a health plan, individuals with certain chronic conditions may still have trouble accessing essential treatments and services. Continue reading

Does FDA Need a Dietary Supplement User Fee Act?

By Elizabeth Guo

Dietary supplements are dominating headlines these days – and not in a good way. Last Wednesday, Nevada officials found basketball star Lamar Odom unconscious at a brothel after taking cocaine along with ten pills of Reload, a sexual enhancement dietary supplement. That same week, the New England Journal of Medicine released an article finding that dietary supplements lead to roughly 23,000 emergency visits a year. Following these events, some officials have called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take a stronger role in regulating the dietary supplement industry.

Dietary supplements have had a long and storied past. As early as 1973, FDA tried to regulate dietary supplements regarding vitamin and mineral potency. The dietary supplement industry responded by challenging FDA in court, and Congress subsequently enacted the Proxmire Amendment, limiting FDA’s authority to regulate dietary supplements. However, by the 1990s, as consumers increasingly began to rely on dietary supplements, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, expanding FDA’s authority to regulate supplements by enacting special rules related to dietary supplement labeling and manufacturing.

Currently, FDA regulates dietary supplements as a special category of foods. Unlike manufacturers of over-the-counter drugs, dietary supplement manufacturers do not need to be registered with FDA and do not need list possible adverse events on supplement labeling. As Joanna Sax points out, this is a major problem because not all dietary supplements are the same. For example, certain weight loss or sexual enhancement supplements often contain chemicals associated with potentially serious side effects while other supplements containing chemicals such as Vitamin C pose less serious safety concerns.

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Regulating Tobacco Standards: An Easy Fix in a Scientifically Uncertain Field

Last week, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study finding that smokers using reduced nicotine cigarettes smoked 30% fewer cigarettes and had reduced cravings at the end of the study compared to smokers using standard cigarettes. The lower-nicotine cigarettes had 0.4 mg of nicotine/gram compared to 15.8 mg of nicotine/gram for the standard cigarettes. Commentators were quick to point out that such studies could provide the evidence FDA needs to establish new nicotine standards for combustible cigarettes.

FDA has explicit authority from Congress to set low nicotine standards for cigarettes. The Family Smoking Prevent and Tobacco Control Act (FSPTCA) allows FDA to set “tobacco product standards,” including provisions for “nicotine yields of the product” where such standards are “appropriate for the protection of public health.” With a mountain of evidence showing that combustible cigarette addiction can lead to cancer, heart disease, and death, FDA should have no problem proving that nicotine standards for combustible cigarettes are appropriate.

FDA may have a harder task trying to show that nicotine reduction standards for other tobacco products are “appropriate for the protection of public health.” As one commentator noted, if the nicotine in combustible cigarettes declines, addicted smokers might switch to other nicotine-containing products, including smokeless-tobacco products, e-cigarettes, and e-pipes. Currently, no study has conclusively shown that smokeless tobacco products are safe or unsafe. Some studies suggest that smokeless tobacco products may lead to smoking later in life, while other studies show that smokeless tobacco may be helpful for smokers hoping to quit.

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HHS’ Proposed Anti-Discrimination Regulations: Protective But Not Protective Enough

By Elizabeth Guo

Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) released a proposed rule implementing section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Section 1557 applies the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to the ACA so that a covered entity cannot discriminate against an individual on the basis of a disability in any health program or activity. The proposed rule clarified how OCR intended to enforce and interpret section 1557’s nondiscrimination provision.

As Timothy Jost and other commentators have noted, the government’s proposed interpretation of section 1557 significantly expands the number of health entities that need to meet the Rehabilitation Act’s nondiscrimination requirements. The regulation proposes to encompass all entities that operate a health program or activity, any part of which receives federal financial assistance. The regulation then broadly interprets “federal financial assistance” to include “subsidies and contracts of insurance.” Thus, an insurer receiving premium tax credits or cost-sharing reduction payments through participating in a health insurance Marketplace would need to ensure that all its health plans meet the Rehabilitation Act’s nondiscrimination requirements, regardless of whether the plans are sold through the Marketplace, outside the Marketplace, or through an employee benefit plan. This broad interpretation means that the Rehabilitation Act’s nondiscrimination provisions will now apply to a number of previously excluded plans.

Expanding the number of plans needing to meet section 1557’s nondiscrimination requirements will provide greater protection to more individuals with disabilities. In the United States, the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Both acts protect disabled individuals, but courts have consistently interpreted only the Rehabilitation Act as prohibiting insurers from designing their health plans to discriminate against individuals with disabilities. On the other hand, courts have held that the ADA provides a safe harbor for insurers when designing their benefit plans. Thus, some insurers under the ADA may be able to exclude all drugs treating HIV/AIDS from their formulary or place all drugs treating HIV/AIDS on the highest cost-sharing tier, benefit designs that the Rehabilitation Act would likely prohibit. See also Kelsey Berry’s post on this topic.  Continue reading

Introducing the 2015-2016 Petrie-Flom Student Fellows

The Petrie-Flom Center is pleased to welcome our new 2015-2016 Student Fellows. In the coming year, each fellow will pursue independent scholarly projects related to health law policy, biotechnology, and bioethics under the mentorship of Center faculty and fellows. They will also be regular contributors here at Bill of Health on issues related to their research. Continue reading

Medicare Coverage for Sex Change Therapy: What’s Next

Last month Medicare’s policy on coverage for sex change therapy changed somewhat. (See Matt’s earlier post here.) Specifically, Medicare’s Departmental Appeals Board invalidated the long-standing National Coverage Determination that dubbed sex change therapy to be non-covered, per se.

Co-blogger Elizabeth Guo and I have done some further digging on this issue and put together two posts answering some questions left open by Medicare’s decision and the news coverage surrounding it.  In this post we discuss next steps: what the change in coverage policy means for Medicare beneficiaries who want coverage for sex change therapy, and what, if any, additional developments are likely to follow.  In a companion post, we will be discussing the somewhat unusual process that was used to make this policy change.

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Is Medicare’s System for Challenging Coverage Determinations Unintentionally Unfair?

On March 25, Susan Jaffe published a blog post in the New York Times about Medicare’s recent change to cover skilled therapy (e.g. physical therapy, nursing care) where it is “reasonable and necessary” maintain a patient’s condition and to prevent deterioration, even when it is not likely that the patient will improve. Jaffe notes that the revisions will likely have a substantial impact on thousands of Medicare beneficiaries even though the change has been largely unnoticed.

The revision highlights a potential problem with the system in place for challenging Medicare coverage. The revision itself is unremarkable, reflecting what national Medicare policies professed, but what local contractors sometimes ignored. What is remarkable is the time it took for Medicare to make the revision, from when the controversy appeared to when Medicare posted the change in its manuals. This delay is problematic because it reflects a dichotomy in how coverage decisions are challenged and changed under Medicare – due not to medical necessity but to political and financial circumstances beyond patient control.

Constituents can change Medicare coverage policies through two processes. One is through the litigation system. Judges can overturn Medicare coverage decisions after patients have exhausted Medicare’s internal adjudication process. Yet, litigation can take years and judges usually defer to Medicare’s judgment. National Coverage Determinations (NCDs) provide an alternative under which constituents can encourage Medicare to reconsider or overturn a prior coverage decision. NCDs supersede Local Coverage Determinations (LCDs) – coverage decisions that affect a region of the United States. When Medicare determines that the LCDs for a specific technology or service are “inconsistent or conflict with each other to the detriment of Medicare beneficiaries,” Medicare can decide to issue an NCD to provide uniform coverage.

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Introducing Student Contributor Elizabeth Guo

Elizabeth Guo is a first year student in the JD/MPH Program at Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Public Health. Her interests lie at the intersection of law, health care reimbursement, and biopharmaceutical regulation. Elizabeth graduated from Harvard University with a BA in social studies, focusing on the bioethics of assisted reproduction in China. Prior to law school, she was a senior associate at Avalere Health, working with life science clients on a range of health policy topics, including Medicare coverage and reimbursement, biosimilar regulation, and healthcare quality programs. Elizabeth is a student editor of the Journal of Law and Technology and a member of the Mississippi Delta Project’s Food Policy Initiative.

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