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Wrestling for the Soul of FDA

User fees are acceptable if they pay for processing passports or extra services at national parks. I don’t worry that the American public will lose confidence in the State Department or the National Park Service. This doesn’t translate to every user fee and every government department.

User fees are a bad way to fund FDA, a public health regulatory agency that oversees nearly a quarter of all consumer spending. It’s not that user fees are corrupting. FDA is capable of making good and bad decisions without regard to where the money comes from. But user fees have the potential to erode public confidence in the agency.

FDA Matters gets it. The agency needs more money to fulfill its mission and the Congress won’t pay for all of the costs. In FY 10, nearly $700 million came from user fees charged to drug and device manufacturers and a few others. (This total and the remaining discussion omit tobacco user fees. No one thinks tobacco companies are getting favorable treatment for their monies!).

FDA received $2.345 billion from public funds in FY 10, more than three times the amount from user fees. It would take a long-time and a lot of user fees for the overall balance in the agency to be threatened.

The real story (and the worry for the future of the rest of the agency) is the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). It receives about $750 million to run the drug approval process and other CDER activities (other than inspections and enforcement). Of that total, about $335 million comes from public funds (45%); $415 million from user fees (55%). How can it be good for industry to provide the predominant funding for CDER or any of the other FDA centers?

Nothing wrong is occurring. But the overreliance on user fees is confidence-eroding for Congress, media and the American public…and dispiriting for FDA staff.

Now is the time to raise and debate these issues.

  • FDA has begun the public hearing process for the next drug user fee act (PDUFA V). Another round of user fee increases could push CDER into even greater dependence.
  • The appropriations committees have started consideration of the agency’s FY 11 appropriation. Under the President’s request, existing user fees (excluding tobacco and proposed new fees) will grow about 15%, while public funds only 6%.
  • Congress may pass new food safety legislation and the House version includes $220 million in new user fees to pay part of the costs of new responsibilities. This is about 20% of the food monies in the President’s FY 11 budget request. This percentage could increase if Congress doesn’t provide several times this amount from public funds to implement the law.

For fiscal and political reasons, user fees are here to stay and FDA will never be funded entirely from public monies. This should not blind us to the risk of FDA slipping into dependence on user fees. Nor should it blind us to how user fees are a drag on public confidence in FDA.

I believe that FDA, regulated industries, Members of Congress and other stakeholders agree with FDA Matters. Yet, you are unlikely to hear them say so. Each fears that FDA would shrink without user fees. Someone needs to go first and say: we will find public monies to keep FDA from becoming dependent on user fees.

The soul of the FDA may not be at stake. But we should not underestimate the damage to the agency from a public perception that user fees are darkening its soul.


At the March 10, 2010 House Appropriations Committee hearing, Commissioner Hamburg addressed the relationship between user fees and FDA decisionmaking:

…. [E]xamining the integrity of our decision making and ensuring that it is free from conflict of interest and other concerns is one of the most essential elements of FDA being able to do its work, being able to have the trust and confidence of policy makers and the public and certainly one of my highest priorities.  So we take it very seriously. We have established firewalls in terms of the use of user fees. We are committed to a science-driven decision making process, and it’s a dynamic concern. We can’t just sit back and say our systems are in place, move onto the next issue. It’s something we have to continually be monitoring, continually responsive to concerns as they’re raised and ensuring that we have the right checks and double checks.

My earlier blog column on this topic:

It’s Time to Change CDER Funding

    September 17th, 2009

As most readers know, bio-pharma companies pay user fees, based on activities (such as submitting a New Drug Application) and on the number of their manufacturing facilities. The amounts are set by law. As part of the arrangement, FDA agrees to certain performance goals, which are also specified in law.

We often hear how dependent CDER is on user fees. The actual numbers are startling and deserve to be well-aired. Read the rest of this

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