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FDA After the Election—Part 2: Leadership and Change

Tuesday, October 30th, 2012

Apart from an occasional reference, FDA is not part of the campaign dialogue leading up to the November 6 nationwide U.S. election. Yet, FDA Matters believes that FDA will be strongly impacted by the election’s outcomes.  Part 1 of “FDA After the Election” concentrated on the agency’s budget situation.

Part 2 of “FDA After the Election” focuses on leadership and change–directly and as they may be affected by potentially large budget cuts. There are some predictable elements, but other elements with great impact may depend upon the perspective of those in power for the next two years and beyond.

Drivers of Change, Post-Election.  Whether President Obama is re-elected or Governor Romney becomes President-elect, FDA’s primary responsibilities remain roughly the same: to be the guardian of food, drug and device safety and to provide a reasonable and responsible pathway for pre-market review of drugs and devices. Likewise, no President has the power to alter the main drivers of FDA’s increasing workload: globalization, scientific complexity, growing regulated industries and new legislative and regulatory mandates in food safety, drugs and devices.

Historically, change at FDA is affected by:  

  • the interest level of the President (most Presidents aren’t interested in FDA),
  • a growing or shrinking agency budget  (budget cutbacks distract, reduce options),
  • an acting vs. a confirmed Commissioner (“acting’s” tend to be placeholders),  and
  • the political will of Congress (legislation, oversight/investigations, or indifference).

If President Obama is Re-elected….then the two main drivers of change are likely to be whether Commissioner Hamburg decides to stay and the federal budget situation.  

This chart explores the variables and draws some conclusions about the opportunities for change. Not surprisingly, they are greatest if Dr. Hamburg stays and there is no sequester. The worst case would be a sequester and a long-term “acting” commissioner; it is only a slight exaggeration to suggest the agency would be set adrift and some panic might set in.



Most like what prior situation?

Budget Status

Opportunities for change






Obama Year 5


Kessler 1993-1994

No sequester

Change continues


Orderly retreat?


New nominee

Von Eschenbach    2006-08

No sequester

Orderly transition: some change


Disorderly retreat?


“Acting” for >  than 6 months

Crawford 2004-05

No sequester

Orderly transition: few changes


Agency set adrift?


If Governor Romney is Elected…..then the main drivers of change are likely to be his interest level (his plate is likely to be full elsewhere), how quickly he nominates a new commissioner, how controversial his nominee is, and the federal budget situation.

This chart (as the one above) explores the variables and draws some conclusions about the opportunities for change. The best situation would be a well-known, well-respected, candidate who could win easy confirmation. That person would have the opportunity to make a lot of changes—although there would be notable differences if a new commissioner faces budget cuts. The worst case for change would be a replay of 2001-2002, when President Bush allowed more than 18 months to go by without a commissioner in place.



Most like what prior situation?

Budget Status

Opportunities for change






Romney Year 1

New nominee easy to confirm

Hamburg  2009-2010

No sequester

Time to shake the place up


Accelerates shake-up?


New nominee  hard confirmation (not “acting”)


No sequester

Congressional constraints in exchange for confirmation?


How long is someone acting?


“Acting” for >  than 6 months


No sequester

Confusion: who to serve?


Panic in the streets?


Timeframes.  While the charts provide a more comprehensive overview of the prospects for leadership and change at FDA, the scenarios will actually unfold over a period of months. Presumably, we will know who will be President within a day or two of the election. However, sequester (or other budget cuts) are not likely to be determined until later this year or may be delayed into next year.

Whether Dr. Hamburg stays will be both her decision and that of President Obama. That might be announced quickly or not.  If there is to be a Romney Administration, it is likely to be at least March 2013 (more likely later) before a nominee is announced.


FDA After the Election—Part 1: Budget

Monday, October 29th, 2012


Apart from an occasional reference, FDA is not part of the campaign dialogue leading up to the November 6 nationwide U.S. election. FDA Matters believes this is probably good—any intelligent  discussion of FDA’s future requires a long-term perspective and a mastery of detail and nuance—both of which are in short supply during “sound bite”-oriented politicking.  

Yet, FDA will be strongly impacted by the election’s outcomes. Part 1 of “FDA After the Election” concentrates on the agency’s budget situation, while Part 2  focuses on leadership and change (http://www.fdamatters.com/?p=2164).

Both parts reflect that ultimately FDA is people-driven—not only by who leads, but also because over 80% of the agency’s costs are people-related. More money = more people = more capability and activity. Less money will have the opposite effect.

The Potential for 8.2% Cuts in January 2013. Most of the current focus is on the potential 8.2% across-the-board federal budget cuts slated for January 2, 2013. Sequester, as the process is known, will leave FDA with about $320 million less to spend in FY 13 than it did in FY 12.

This includes cuts to taxpayer-funded FDA appropriations (about a $2.5 billion base) and user fee revenue (nearly a $1.4 billion base). If the cuts were applied entirely to FDA personnel, the agency would have to lay-off or furlough about 1000 employees.

We know that the sequester of FDA funding has consequences:  food will be less safe; drug and device approvals will be slower; problems with imports and globalization will become more numerous; and FDA modernization will be severely slowed. Note that this is the opposite of what everyone–critics included–wants. The precise impact is hard to quantify because FDA will try to prioritize its remaining manpower to avoid immediate disasters and avoid any visible failure to approve life-saving therapies.

Congress does not want to reduce the federal deficit through a sequester. This view is supported by President Obama and his opponent, Governor Romney.  Despite this seeming unanimity, an alternative deficit reduction package would need to deal with entitlement programs and taxes. So—politically—deficit reduction is a mess and sequester may happen.

Budget Threats Will Continue, Regardless of Sequester. Even if sequester were somehow to be avoided, pressure on federal spending will continue far beyond the immediate future. Sequester is the most immediate hurdle in what is likely to be an annual challenge to all federal agencies, including (and especially) FDA.

In the face of this, the Alliance for a Stronger FDA* is asking Congress for three sane and sensible things that should help FDA:

  • Recognize and properly fund the special and growing role of FDA as a protector of food and drug safety and a gateway to medical innovation and science.
  • Find alternative means to reduce the budget deficit and avoid the across-the-board sequestration of 8.2% of federal agency funding on January 2, 2013.
  • Return federal budget-making to a process under which national priorities (such as FDA) are adequately funded.

The Alliance’s call for a return to funding based on national priorities is a statement of faith: that FDA is a core function of national government and that we can demonstrate that funding the agency is essential.

Re-affirming FDA as a National Priority. We should not, however, assume that FDA’s core governmental role is self-evident to everyone. We need to convince policymakers, the media, and the public that we belong in the very special group of federal programs that need to grow–even as other important programs suffer cutbacks and some even wither and die. Implicitly, the responsibilities of the federal government are going to be redefined, whether consciously or as the residue of decisions that will be forced on the President and Congress after the election and over the next few years.

How well will FDA compete for scarce dollars, assuming that the situation is not pre-determined by across-the-board cuts? The elite tier of federal programs has some heavy-hitters, such as air-traffic controllers and the nation’s judiciary. The absence of funding in their areas often has more concrete and immediate consequences than a lack of funding for FDA.

With FDA funds being used to oversee products and services that mount in the trillions and encompass 25% of consumer spending….our case is equally compelling. Everyone involved with FDA has an obligation to make themselves advocates for increased funding.


*  For purposes of disclosure: I am one of the founders and serve as Deputy Executive Director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, www.strengthenfda.org. It is the only multi-stakeholder (consumers, patients, health professionals, industry) that advocates for increased FDA funding. Our strength is in the breadth and number of our members, so I urge you to contact me for more information about belonging. Contact me at sgrossman@strengthenfda.org.

Note that my duties with the Alliance are in addition to, and apart from, the work of my policy and regulatory consulting firm, HPS Group, LLC, which is the publisher of FDA Matters.  The views expressed in FDA Matters are my own, and those of HPS Group, and are not the views or positions of the Alliance.

FDA and the Republican Platform: Harsh Words, Unclear Intent

Monday, September 3rd, 2012


Between “the FDA today” and the “FDA in 2013” stands a U.S. presidential election—one that appears to offer Americans a choice of philosophy about the size of government and the role of regulatory agencies.  FDA Mattersprevious blog laid out some very early comparisons between the candidates on regulatory policy and the role of Commissioner.

Along with nominating Mitt Romney as its Presidential candidate, this past week’s Republican Party convention produced the party’s 2012 Platform –a series of policy positions to guide the campaign. FDA reform commands about 180 words—laying out the case for aggressive (although unspecified) changes.

Campaigning vs. Governing. Before looking at the specific words and thoughts in the Republican Platform, it is worth providing some context. One of the enduring lessons of my 50 years watching American politics is that there is often a profound difference between campaigning and governing. The Platform is put together by party delegates from every state, working with subject-matter experts and overseen by the Presidential nominee’s team.

Mitt Romney would not allow a party platform with which he disagreed. However, should he be elected, he will not feel bound by the positions taken in it. That said, the Platform’s words on FDA reform appear to generally reflect other things that Mr. Romney (and his surrogates) have said on other occasions.  What he will want to do about FDA if elected (or even what he will be able to do) is unknown.

The 2012 Republican Platform on FDA Reform. The  platform report states:

America’s leadership in life sciences R&D and medical innovation is being threatened. As a country, we must work together now or lose our leadership position in medical innovation, U.S. job creation, and access to life-saving treatments for U.S. patients. The United States has led the global medical device and pharmaceutical industries for decades. This leadership has made the U.S. the medical innovation capital of the world, bringing millions of high-paying jobs to our country and life-saving devices and drugs to our nation’s patients. But that leadership position is at risk; patients, innovators, and job creators point to the lack of predictability, consistency, transparency and efficiency at the Food and Drug Administration that is driving innovation overseas, benefiting foreign, not U.S., patients.

We pledge to reform the FDA so we can ensure that the U.S. remains the world leader in medical innovation, that device and drug jobs stay in the U.S., that U.S. patients benefit first from new devices and drugs, and that the FDA no longer wastes U.S. taxpayer and innovators’ resources because of bureaucratic red tape and legal uncertainty.

While the rhetoric expressed in the platform is not new to FDA Matters—it has a certain menacing quality when it is “the voice” of an American political party as opposed to a “government is bad” Tea Party leader or a frustrated medical device executive.

It begs the question: didn’t America’s global leadership in the life sciences come in part from the FDA’s competence and high standards and not despite them? I would emphatically say “yes,” but there certainly seem to be others that would answer “no.”

Harsh Words for FDA: Consistent with the Overall Tone of the Platform. FDA definitely needs some improving—as past FDA Matters’ columns have made clear. I try to stay constructive and be mindful that complex problems rarely have simple solutions.

Perhaps more to the point, FDA—by itself and working with Congress—seems to have made enormous strides over the last few years. One could even argue that FDA is already working hard on implementing a “pro-innovation” and “create more predictability” agenda that Republicans should like.

This, perhaps, brings us full circle around to our prior warning not to read too much into campaign rhetoric.

FDA reform is two paragraphs in a 50 page document—one that stridently and broadly promotes smaller government and fiscal prudence, almost regardless of consequences. For example, on budget issues, the Platform calls for “Reining in Out-of-Control Spending, Balancing the Budget, and Ensuring Sound Monetary Policy.”

When government is cast as incompetent and out-of-control, it leaves little space to say good things about federal agencies, such as FDA, that work hard, are underfunded, and are committed to improving their performance. When it comes to FDA, we can be hopeful that Republican candidates are more judicious while campaigning…..and, if elected, more restrained in their actions than their rhetoric suggests.


Why Orphan Drugs are a Key Part of Pharma’s Future

Thursday, August 23rd, 2012


I was recently interviewed about orphan drugs for the British website, “pharmaphorum” and thought my readers might be interested. Here is a sample:


HB: How has the orphan drug space changed since the introduction of the Orphan Drug Act 1983?

SG: There is really no way to compare the situation. When we passed the Act, we hoped to stimulate the development of a few drugs that would make a difference in people’s lives. No one foresaw that we were creating what would become a multi-billion dollar market segment in which companies might compete fiercely to be first. The timing was also fortuitous — in that the Act was adopted just as our capabilities in biotechnology began to grow and the two movements are closely intertwined.


The full interview is as at: http://www.pharmaphorum.com/2012/08/22/fda-matters-orphan-drugs-key-part-pharmas-future/.



FDA and the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012


FDA Matters has been wondering: when is the right time to start talking about the 2012 U.S. Presidential election and how it might affect FDA’s future? The best answer is: when Congress has finished its FDA policy work for the year. With the enactment of FDA user fee reauthorization legislation and a pending agreement on government funding for the first half of FY 2013 (starts October 1, 2012), it is now time to start talking. 


Without picking sides: what issues face FDA after the election and in 2013? How might the agency be affected by whether President Barack Obama is given another four year term or challenger Mitt Romney is elected President?


For those of us deeply involved in the FDA world, the most important difference between the candidates might well be their approach to the agency and particularly toward FDA leadership.


President Obama has not yet issued any statements about FDA on his   campaign website  . However, based on the last 3 ½ years, he supports FDA and its mission and sees that the agency’s role is likely to continue to grow because of globalization, public health and safety, and the need to encourage innovation. 


His overall regulatory positioning might be considered less favorable to FDA. New agency regulations must pass through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). Cass Sunstein, a distinguished legal scholar appointed to head OIRA in 2009, is considered to be more open to de-regulatory approaches that may be inconsistent with FDA’s growing responsibilities. For example, it is his office that is currently holding up some of the regulations needed to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act.


The Republic nominee, Mitt Romney, has not yet issued any specific policy statements on FDA. However, he appeared at a medical device company event in late March and       su   ggested     that FDA is part of an “attack on free enterprise” by “the thousands upon thousands of bureaucrats that work in Washington.”


His campaign website does not reference FDA, but it does have a position paper on regulation. In it, he advocates:

·                  Imposing a regulatory cap of zero dollars on all federal agencies*

·                  Requiring congressional approval of all new “major” regulations


One should never take campaign speeches too seriously. Even allowing for that, it would appear there are significant differences in how the two candidates view FDA today.  These differences may narrow or expand in the three months until Election Day. 


Just as the two candidates appear to differ strongly on the role of FDA, they are also likely to differ on their choice of FDA commissioners. This is not just a matter of whether Romney wins, but also if Commissioner Hamburg is thinking about leaving (and we have no knowledge of this, only that it is not uncommon for Administration leaders to leave in the year after a President is re-elected).


The history of appointments of FDA commissioners is quite varied, starting with 1991 when Dr. David Kessler became the first Commissioner to face a Senate confirmation hearing. He resigned at the beginning of Clinton’s second term (analogous to an Obama victory and a decision by Dr. Hamburg to leave). It took nearly two years for President Clinton to appoint his successor and the Senate to confirm the appointment.


Hiring a new commissioner was not a priority for the new Bush Administration in 2001. Dr. Mark McClellan was confirmed in November 2002, more than 20 months after the new Administration took office. In contrast, Dr. Hamburg was appointed by the Obama Administration and was confirmed by May, a delay of less than 5 months.


So, if Romney wins or Obama wins/Hamburg resigns….we may have a new Commissioner quickly or the job may be vacant for a long time.


Overall, the differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are likely to matter a great deal to FDA. In turn, this will affect FDA stakeholders….regardless of their politics or their views on whether FDA needs continuous improvement or an outright overhaul.




*   My understanding of this: the private sector cost impact of any new federal regulation must be offset by the private sector savings from repealing or significantly revising an existing federal regulation.


P.S. For those wanting more on FDA and the U.S. elections, FDA Matters intends to write often on this topic over the next few months.

User Fee Reauthorization—Critics Come Out Before the Ink Is Dry

Tuesday, June 26th, 2012


The House passed the final user fee reauthorization legislation last week and (as of this evening) the Senate has also passed the bill. It will now go to the President for signature. FDA Matters says: well done, Congress! Despite my fear of delays and bickering, you completed this process on time and with broad bipartisan support.


However, critics are already emerging, "before the ink is dry.” The advocacy group, Public Citizen, is complaining that drugs and devices will be less safe as a result of the legislation. At the same time, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA official, has published an essay arguing the legislation doesn’t go far enough to expedite review of drugs for serious medical conditions.


The Public Citizen Health Research Group’s critique is to be expected. They were founded 40 years ago and have consistently been critical of the agency’s handling of drug and medical device approvals. Their continued opposition rests on three primary points:


  1. User fees created by PDFUA have created a conflict of interest because the agency is funded in part by the industry it is supposed to be regulating.
  2. This has led to poor quality reviews of drugs and thus the release of dangerous products. Since PDUFA, more drugs have been approved and then banned, causing needless deaths/injuries.
  3. Working conditions at the FDA have plummeted since PDUFA, resulting in high staff turnover and sweatshop-like conditions.

I, too, wish that FDA were 100% taxpayer funded, but user fees are reality, a compromise that makes it possible for FDA to have the funds to operate. There is no evidence of bias generated by the fees, plus Americans would be far worse off if a quarter of FDA’s budget (user fees) were to suddenly disappear.


With regard to the quality of drug reviews, I see no evidence they’ve declined and the methodology of the PDUFA/drug approval study is suspect. Working conditions and staff turnover are definitely a matter of “compared to what?” I don’t think FDA does badly when you look at it that way.


Far more of a surprise is the essay by Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs at FDA.  Using primarily examples of orphan drugs, he argues that FDA is over-focused on long-term safety and on reining in physician prescribing practices. As a result, the agency is stifling medical innovation and disregarding the needs of patients with serious medical conditions. I don’t agree with him on a number of points, but you can hit the link and judge for yourself.


His argument might be more compelling if he referenced large-market products, such as pain killers and obesity drugs. However, by using orphan drug examples, Dr. Gottlieb winds up attacking the new user fee reauthorization legislation as insufficient to expedite review of drugs that target serious medical conditions.


FDA Matters has already praised changes affecting orphan drugs and accelerated approval. My view is shared by much of FDA and the FDA stakeholder communities; for example: FDA and other leaders, BIO, the National Health Council and the National Organization for Rare Disorders.


So, why attack PDUFA’s bold new efforts on behalf of orphan drugs and patients with serious medical conditions? 


To Dr. Gottlieb, these “legislative fixes” are inadequate because “the agency’s staff will still have wide discretion in determining when to employ these [new] tools.” If overcautious, reluctant reviewers are still in charge, then even Congressional changes in the FDA law will not improve the review process to benefit patients with serious medical conditions.


His proposed solution is to remove the approval of drugs from the review divisions and give that authority to a panel of senior scientists with the “experience and stature to exercise the policy judgment required to make careful decisions about how to weigh risk and benefits…” An even better solution, in his mind, would be to follow the European Medicine Agency’s model in which staff does analysis and evaluation, but the final approval decisions are made by politically-appointed individuals.


I think both of these approaches would severely weaken—if not outright undermine—the existing FDA approval process. This would be particularly unfortunate now, when the new legislation empowers agency leadership to lower the barriers, so that review staff can be more flexible and apply new approaches to evaluating therapies for serious medical conditions.


Conclusions. Before more drastic actions are considered, let’s give the new user fee reauthorization legislation time to work. The ink isn’t even dry!





Many readers were out of town this past Friday and may have missed:


Biosimilars Update: Keys for the Next Year and Beyond   June 22nd, 2012

The biosimilars market in the U.S. will not grow large overnight. By a decade from now, sales of biosimilars will be creating new winners and losers in the overall biopharmaceutical marketplace. In light of this, I was recently asked: what should a developer or investor be looking to achieve over the next year in the area of biosimilars? What should they be looking to achieve in the years after that?  Read the rest of this entry


Biosimilars Update: Keys for the Next Year and Beyond

Friday, June 22nd, 2012


The biosimilars market in the U.S. will not grow large overnight. However, over the next 4 to 10 years, a lot of companies are going to become players. During this same period, health plans, pharmacy benefit managers, Medicare, and Medicaid are going to start reaping savings by buying less expensive biosimilars. By a decade from now, sales of biosimilars will be creating new winners and losers in the overall biopharmaceutical marketplace.

In light of this, I was recently asked: what should a developer or investor be looking to achieve over the next year in the area of biosimilars? What should they be looking to achieve in the years after that?

Over the next year: Assuming the U.S. biosimilar law survives the upcoming Supreme Court decision (concerning the constitutionality of the President Obama’s health reform program), then the last roadblock to creating a biosimilar marketplace in the U.S. will have been eliminated.

The key, then, becomes: how quickly can FDA complete the multiple steps  necessary to establishing a viable system for evaluating and approving biosimilars. Here are some key indicators to watch in judging the agency’s progress:

  • the number of investigational new drug applications (IND's) being issued for biosimilars, which would be a “leading indicator” of slowdown or snags in FDA’s initial intake process;
  • publication of draft policy guidances dealing with critical details such as nomenclature, label warnings, unique names, etc. (until these issues are settled, FDA will be reluctant to approve anything);
  • revised estimates of how many fees the FDA expects to collect each year under the new biosimilars user fee program (a rough gauge of FDA’s view of its timeframe for approvals).

For those looking to be active in the biosimilars market, the next year provides an opportunity to build and strengthen relationships with payers (especially purchasing groups). Payers are going to be focused on the strength of clinical, animal and laboratory data comparing the biosimilar to the original biologic product. There will be a need for biosimilars to be offered at a discount to the cost of the original, but high-quality biosimilars with a 15%-20% discount will dominate the market over biosimilars of questionable quality with 30% to 40% discounts.

Similarly, it is not too soon for companies developing biosimilars to start working with practicing physicians—to calm their fears that they will be forced to use inferior biosimilar products that will result in treatment failures. While payers, not physicians, will drive this market—payers will avoid products likely to generate criticisms and resistance from physicians.  

Finally, for those interested in the biosimilars market–stay cool over the next year. Biosimilars are a sure bet for the long-term. However, it will (quite legitimately) take FDA some time to create the new complex approval pathway that is required.

Looking beyond one year. Stay cool is still good advice. Some companies are going to slip behind or drop their investments because of corporate pressures for short-term return on investment (ROI). The biosimilars market is a battle for the long-haul and will belong to those who are prepared to stay the course through the several years it will take for FDA to develop policies and implement them consistently.

Another potential restraint on developers’ and investors’ commitments over the next several years is the persistent allegation that the U.S. biosimilars market will be limited unless FDA makes a determination that a biosimilar is interchangeable with the original product. However, FDA has placed a low priority on establishing a pathway for determining that an approved biosimilar is also interchangeable with the original biologic product.   

This “controversy” is a throwback to the implementation of Hatch-Waxman in the 1980’s. At that time, substituting copies for originals was a new concept, quality was low, purchasing was decentralized, and doctors had no incentive to prescribe generics.  Allowing forced substitution of FDA-approved generic drugs because they were “interchangeable” was an important dynamic in the growth of the generic drug industry.

However, none of these same underlying conditions are present at the beginning of the U.S. biosimilars market—substitution is widely accepted, quality biosimilars will be available, purchasing is far more centralized, and physicians will have incentives to prescribe biosimilars. FDA designation of "interchangeability," key to generic drugs, is almost irrelevant to biosimilars.

As a final thought: the rise of generic drugs made it necessary for innovators to work harder to develop new, patent-protected products that were better than drugs available generically. The same dynamic is going to play out over the next 10 years for biologic products. The biosimilars pathway adds further urgency for innovator companies to be refilling their pipelines with products that are better than ones currently available.  

Spinal Cord Injury—Innovation Measured in Decades, Not Headlines

Monday, June 18th, 2012


We are undergoing a supposed “national crisis” in medical innovation.  Congress, FDA, NIH, and industry are involved in multiple initiatives to “cure” this problem. This is particularly visible now because the user fee reauthorization process is underway, but the state of medical innovation is always relevant because of our headline-driven, crisis-oriented culture. 

To FDA Matters, this approach profoundly distorts medical accomplishment. You can’t use “where are we today” to judge the success or failure of a medical research process that is inherently broad, iterative, uneven, filled with false starts and driven by cumulative success more often than miraculous breakthroughs. As a case in point, I offer efforts to achieve spinal cord regeneration.  

In the mid-to-late 1970’s, I worked for an advocacy group that, among other things, represented the interests of medical research institutions. There was one Congressman on the right committee who was friendly to our cause and with whom we should have had a great relationship.

However, he had two key positions with which we could not agree. He was, simultaneously, the leading Congressional advocate for animal rights and perhaps the only Congressional advocate for spinal cord regeneration. We opposed his position on animal rights because we thought it would hinder medical research.

Surprisingly, we were also against his legislation that would stimulate medical research on spinal cord regeneration. We supported groups promoting the fight against cancer or cardiovascular disease because their proposals allowed NIH significant discretion to determine priorities. In contrast, we were against legislation that would require research on narrow and specific topics, such as spinal cord regeneration.

But our objection (and the vehemence of our objection) went well beyond that. The promise of biomedical research was so great, it was wrong to waste research monies on areas that held no promise.

After all, we thought, spinal cord regeneration was the stuff of science fiction. Despite the death and disability from spinal cord injury—an area of genuine unmet need—there was nothing that could be done. People could dream of a future world where medical science could achieve such miracles, but for the foreseeable future it was wasted money and unfairly gave hope to patients to suggest that spinal cord regeneration was possible.

Flash forward 30 plus years and the Congressman looks like a visionary….and the organization I worked for looks like unwitting advocates for the status quo. A rich base of scientific discoveries has improved supportive care, provided mechanisms for limiting the damage from spinal cord injuries and given reasonable hope that spinal cord regeneration is a possibility for humans in the next 10 to 15 years, maybe sooner. 

To gain perspective on this, along with a sense of NIH’s current commitment to this area of research, go to http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/sci/detail_sci.htm and also follow some of the links from that site.

I don’t think we were fools in 1998 because we couldn’t see spinal cord regeneration as a promising research area. Despite the organization’s considerable expertise, we underestimated how far medical research could take us—given enough time, interest, commitment and funding. Also, in retrospect, it is remarkable how willing researchers are to contribute to a process of innovation and discovery for which someone else might eventually gain most of the credit.

Forgive me if I don’t see the crisis of “medical innovation” about which it is so fashionable to complain.

As a result of the user fee reauthorization legislation and other FDA and NIH initiatives, I foresee a more conducive regulatory environment for development and approval of medically-innovative products, particularly orphan drugs. The goal is to allow more flexibility, while maintaining rigor. However, these process enhancements are only valuable if there is a wealth of medical innovation, not a dearth of it.

There is more innovative medical research being done today than at any time in history. But the truly great achievements are usually built on many people’s work undertaken over many decades—and until near the end, they hardly ever rate a headline unless someone is intentionally hyping them. Look beneath the surface and you will find that medical innovation is alive and well and just needs our continued encouragement—via regulatory and funding support.  


A Well-Funded FDA: Only if Congress Stands Behind its Own Words

Monday, June 4th, 2012


This week, FDA Matters raises the delicate question: can Congress be counted to act upon its own words supporting the FDA? This is desperately important as Congress makes decisions on FDA’s FY 13 funding and possible sequestration.

 Over the last few weeks, the Senate and the House have passed the FDA user fee reauthorization legislation by large bipartisan majorities with almost no opposition. Both bodies have extolled the importance of the FDA. The urgency of it funding needs have been fully acknowledged. The incredible breadth of support for the agency has been counted and documented. But will Congress provide the funding to back this up?

The single most important determinant of FDA’s success is whether it has the money to carry out its responsibilities. Yet, this is a very tough environment for any agency to receive funding increases.

So, it was particularly encouraging that the FDA’s cause became linked to J-O-B-S during House passage of the user fee legislation. The House Energy and Commerce Committee fact sheet on the legislation begins:

The United States has led the global medical device and biopharmaceutical industries for decades.  This leadership has made the U.S. the medical innovation capital of the world, bringing hundreds of thousands of high-paying jobs to our country and life-saving devices and drugs to our nation’s patients.  U.S. medical device-related employment totals over 2 million jobs, and these are good, rewarding jobs as employees in the device industry earn an average of $60,000 per year.  The U.S. biopharmaceutical industry is responsible for over 4 million U.S. jobs. 

The media has noted that the user fee legislation assures FDA of nearly $6.5 billion in industry monies over the next 5 years. This is indeed a lot of money. FDA will need every dollar of it to meet the commitments it has made in writing to use these monies on specific activities and on achieving specific performance benchmarks.  

User fees, then, are basically set for the next five years. However, they only supplement the funding FDA needs to carry out its responsibilities. FDA CANNOT LIVE BY USER FEES ALONE.  

To conduct the bulk of its functions, FDA received a budget authority (BA) appropriation of about $2.5 billion in FY 12. This is taxpayer, not industry, monies. Assuming a very modest 6 % annual increase in costs and responsibilities each year, FDA will need about $150 million more to meet its responsibility in FY 13. Additional 6% increases would be needed annually in succeeding years.

Using the 6% annual growth and projected out to five-years–as has been done for the user fee monies–FDA will need a total of $15 billion in non-user fee, BA appropriations from FY 13 to FY 17.  This is in addition to the industry contribution of $6.5 billion over the same 5-year period.

Prospects for 6% increases, even in the first year (FY 13), do not look good. The Senate is recommending only a 0.5% increase for FY 13 (about +$25 million of the needed 6% increase of $150 million). The House appropriations subcommittee is marking the bill up later this week. There is no reason to be optimistic since the House is operating under a total budget ceiling that is much lower than the Senate.

Even worse, the BA appropriations portion of the FDA budget faces a potential January 2013 sequester (automatic across-the-board reduction in most federal discretionary spending) of about 8% of BA funds ($200 million).

If the sequester occurs, FDA would be provided only $2.3 billion in FY 13, taking the agency below the funding level it had in FY 10. Even if 6% increases were to start in FY 14 after an FY 13 sequester, FDA would receive only $13 billion in BA funding from FY 13-17. That is about a $2 billion gap in BA funding over 5 years, solely as a result of the possible FY 13 sequestration. 

The modest $15 billion, 5-year estimate for BA appropriations (based on 6% annual increases) does not account for the costs of the Food Safety Modernization Act.  Nor does it account for the increased non-user fee responsibilities Congress has incorporated in the user fee reauthorization legislation (e.g. provisions to deal with drug shortages). Further, the FDA’s job becomes larger and more difficult each year (globalization, more complex science) so that the agency budget should increase by more than 6% each year.  

This brings us back to the delicate question we began with: will the Senate and House stand behind their own words about the importance of FDA and its role in job-creation and the economy?  If so, Congress needs to appropriate more money for FDA in FY 13 and each of the succeeding four years and it must exempt FDA from any sequestration.  


For purposes of disclosure: I am one of the founders and serve as Deputy Executive Director of the Alliance for a Stronger FDA, www.strengthenfda.org. It is the only multi-stakeholder (consumers, patients, health professionals, industry) that advocates for increased FDA funding. Our strength is in the breadth and number of our member, so I urge you to contact me for more information about belonging. Contact me at sgrossman@strengthenfda.org.


Note that my duties with the Alliance are in addition to, and apart from, the work of my policy and regulatory consulting firm, HPS Group, LLC, which is the publisher of FDA Matters.  The views expressed in FDA Matters are my own, and those of HPS Group, and are not the views or positions of the Alliance.

Biosimilars and the U.S. Supreme Court: FDA Program Could Be Nullified

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012


The U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) (also known as ObamaCare) no later than early July. One of the possible results is nullification of the entire Act, although FDA Matters thinks this is the least likely outcome.

Nonetheless, the U.S. biosimilars law—passed as a separate section of ACA—could be rendered void if the Supreme Court overturns the entire ACA. Where would that leave FDA? What about those companies that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to be part of the emerging U.S. biosimilars marketplace?

Controversy over The Affordable Care Act. The ACA, passed in March 2010, creates a comprehensive national approach to the problems of access and affordability of health care.  While not a pure “national health insurance” program that would be recognizable in most of the world, it is more far-reaching than any prior U.S. health legislation since the creation of Medicare (for the over-65 population) and Medicaid (a federal-state program for the poor) in the mid-1960’s. Numerous cost-containment provisions are also included in the ACA.

The ACA nearly didn’t pass Congress at all….and heated opposition has not lessened since its passage. A number of lawsuits have attacked the constitutionality of the law—with the leading case being led by the attorneys general of about 20 states. The US Supreme Court listened to oral arguments earlier this year and will decide the case before it adjourns in early July.

Biosimilars at Risk.   The Supreme Court may uphold the entire law as constitutional. Or they might decide only specific parts of the law are unconstitutional, none of which relate to biosimilars.  In either scenario, FDA will proceed with its current plans to implement the biosimilars law.

However, the Supreme Court might decide that a constitutional problem with one part of the law (e.g. mandating that individuals buy health insurance) is so far-reaching that the entire law is unconstitutional. In this last situation, FDA might be stripped of its authority to implement the biosimilars program enacted into law as part of ACA.

Little Precedent on What Comes Next. The Supreme Court rarely rules that Congressional actions are unconstitutional. When it does so, the Court usually looks for the narrowest Constitutional grounds possible—trying to preserve as much of the legislation as it can. This makes it most likely that biosimilars will survive the Court’s review. It also means there is little precedent as to what would happen to the biosimilars program if the ACA is invalidated in its entirety.  

One possibility is that FDA has innate authority to create and regulate a category of biosimilar drugs and does not need a legislative grant of authority.  This was discussed when Congress was first considering biosimilars legislation seriously in 2007 and 2008. At the time, FDA wisely deferred on the question, stating that it wanted Congressional guidance (meaning legislation). 

Should the law be overturned, the “innate authority” question might be re-raised, allowing FDA to continue with little or no change in its plan. The agency might even argue that Congress has given the agency guidance—treating the language of the 2010 law as a directive rather than a mandate.*

There is no hint as to whether FDA is thinking along these lines. When I asked FDA, I was told: we are confident that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional.

Failing a decision by FDA that it has the innate authority to approve biosimilars, it would fall to Congress to find a way to restore the program by legislation.  According to the trade publication, FDA Week, biosimilars’ leader, Hospira, is gearing up to pursue a legislative re-enactment should the Supreme Court overturn the biosimilars program. The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and Congress would also want to assure there is a biosimilars pathway.**

The problem: legislative re-enactment might not be so easy. While Congress is generally happy with the current biosimilars law, it was the product of a series of compromises and political maneuvering that left winners and losers. Merely re-adopting current law might prove surprisingly difficult.

Meantime, we all await the Supreme Court’s decision. And it’s safe to say that no one in the bio-pharma community is looking forward to the possibility of a new fight over biosimilars.


* There is no lack of support in Congress for the biosimilars program. Both the House and Senate versions of the user fee reauthorization legislation contain a new user fee to cover part of FDA’s costs for reviewing applications for biosimilar products approvals.

** For those with subscriptions to FDA Week, the article can be found at: http://insidehealthpolicy.com/FDA-Week/FDA-Week-05/11/2012/hospira-to-pursue-biosimilars-bill-if-scotus-strikes-down-health-care-law/menu-id-721.html

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