Final Common Rule Revisions Just Published

By Holly Fernandez Lynch

This morning, the Federal Register posted for public inspection the final rule revising the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects (AKA “The Common Rule”).  This has been a long, long road, beginning with an ANPRM in 2011 and a massive NPRM in 2015.  The agencies clearly wanted to slide this in before the administration change on Friday, but substantial uncertainty remains.

I’ve copied the preamble’s articulation of key changes – and key proposals that have been dropped – below the fold.  But I want to briefly address the “what now?” question.  The incoming Trump administration will have its hands full with ACA “repeal and something,” so it’s hard to imagine this regulatory change will be high on the priority list, especially with some of the most worrisome proposals having been nixed already.  But the Congressional Review Act provides Congress a streamlined process to eliminate new agency rules.  Under the Act, agencies must notify Congress of new regulations, triggering a 60 legislative day review period in which Congress can pass a resolution of disapproval for presidential signature (or veto).  So that’s a possibility here.

In addition, two bills have passed the House that could impact these regulations.  First, the Midnight Rules Relief Act would amend the Congressional Review Act to allow Congress to disapprove multiple rules at once.  In other words, Congress could pass a resolution of disapproval of ALL regulations that had been recently passed to get rid of them all in one fell swoop without individual consideration.  Second, the REINS (Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny) Act, if passed, would require that “major” rules get a joint resolution of Congressional approval within 70 session days to take effect – “major” is defined as having an annual impact of $100M or more, a major increase in costs, or significant adverse effects on innovation.

Point being, don’t get too comfortable with the new rule just yet.  Key changes – and things that are staying the same – are listed below (from the Fed. Reg. notice).  And I’ll be presenting on these matters at Petrie-Flom’s upcoming conference, Health Law Year in P/Review, on Monday 1/23/17.

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Religion or Women?

In response to the religious objections levied against the contraceptives coverage mandate at issue in Hobby Lobby, Zubik, and gobs of other cases, many have argued that this was really a matter of subjugating women – not about religion per se.  Well, now we have a test case: Vermont’s governor just signed into law a requirement that public and private health insurance cover vasectomies without copays and deductibles. There won’t be the same arguments about abortifacients here, but many religious employers should object just the same, if they’re being consistent. Now let’s watch and see…

SCOTUS and More Surprises on Zubik

After the 2014 SCOTUS decision in Hobby Lobby, in which a closely-held for-profit employer won the argument that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act protected it against enforcement of the government’s contraceptives coverage mandate, all eyes have been on what SCOTUS would do in response to a challenge to the very same accommodation it toyed with as a less restrictive alternative in that case.  The Court agreed to hear a consolidated set of challenges to the accommodation brought by several religious non-profit employers who seek outright exemption from the mandate (under the case name Zubik et al.) – but then Justice Scalia passed away, leaving the Court with the unpalatable prospect of a 4-4 decision.

SCOTUS has pulled a few tricks out of its hat to avoid that possibility.  First, it surprised us by seeking supplemental briefs on a possible compromise solution, which would ostensibly allow women to access contraceptives (as the government desires) while not burdening the religious employers (as they desire).  The parties basically responded, as politely as would be expected, that some compromise was indeed possible – but not on terms the other could or would actually accept.  Nonetheless, today, SCOTUS surprised us again – seeing enough glimmer of a possible compromise to decline to decide the cases on the merits, instead returning them to the lower courts to work something out.

So what does that mean?  In my view, count it as a win for the government.  Eight out of nine circuit courts ruled in the government’s favor below, holding that the accommodation it had already offered did not substantially burden employers’ religious beliefs – which means that RFRA’s further protection, demanding a compelling government interest satisfied in the least restrictive way, does not even get triggered. These courts have no reason to change that determination now.  Even if there is a compromise that would be less burdensome on religious employers (which I don’t think there is), such a compromise is not required under RFRA unless there is a substantial burden.  And SCOTUS hasn’t said there is.

What we have here is, ironically, precisely the same result we’d have had if SCOTUS had issued a 4-4 decision.  The lower court opinions will almost certainly stand, and we’ll likely still have a bit of a circuit split. So now, we wait on a new president.  The Donald would presumably destroy the ACA/mandate entirely, whereas Hillary would hopefully be able to deliver a ninth justice that will recognize RFRA’s reasonable limits.  Religious freedom is critically important, but so too is accepting the government’s dramatic efforts to be accommodating, short of letting every religious believer be an island unto himself.

Some Commentary on How to Think About Secondary Research with Biospecimens

The public comment period on the NPRM to revise the Common Rule has just closed, and now we wait to see what happens (if anything), and when.  One of the most controversial proposals in the NPRM would require at least broad consent for secondary research with biospecimens (i.e., research on specimens originally collected for another purpose, either clinical care or a different study), regardless of whether those specimens retain identifiers.  This is a substantial change from the status quo, which does not require consent for such research with de-identified specimens.  How should we feel about this status quo, and the proposed change?  My own view is that it’s really not so bad: the risks to individual research participants are quite low, and the current approach facilitates critically important scientific advancement.  There is certainly room for improvement, e.g., to impose punishment on those who would act to re-identify de-identified specimens without permission, to inform the public that such research takes place, and to educate them about its value, perhaps allowing those who still feel very strongly that they prefer not to be included an opportunity to opt-out.  But what has been actually proposed has more problems than what it would replace, and in fact, wouldn’t solve some of those it seems to be a response to.

Rebecca Skloot feels otherwise.  She is the author of a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which chronicles the origin of one particularly important cell line – HeLa  – derived from cells that had been excised from Ms. Lacks in the course of a 1951 surgery to treat her cancer, and later used for research without her knowledge or permission.  Ms. Lacks was poor, uneducated, and black, and her descendants have also faced more than their fair share of adversity.  Ms. Skloot paints a compelling story of exploitation, but in my opinion, it is much more effective as a narrative about the horrible and enduring legacy of racism in this country than as proof that researchers who conduct secondary research with biospecimens without consent (as permitted under the current regulations, remember) or even without profit-sharing have behaved badly. After all, if individual risks are low and social benefits high – both true – then what’s the problem?  And it is far from clear that specimen sources deserve compensation for no other reason than that their discarded material actually proves valuable to scientists.  Nonetheless, the book has been used as a rallying cry by people from all walks of life who believe that they should be allowed to control whether, and potentially how, their specimens are used for research. Indeed, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is probably the single most important development that pushed the proposed revisions to the Common Rule forward, for the first time since they were released in 1991.

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New Developments in the Guatemala STD Experiments Case

In the late 1940s, US government scientists, in collaboration with Guatemalan counterparts, were involved in a horrible array of experiments on human subjects in which a variety of vulnerable groups in Guatemala were intentionally infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid and left without treatment. [For more on how they ended up in Guatemala and the ethics of intentional infection studies, see my work here and here.] The experiments were done without consent and without scientific rigor, violating both contemporaneous and modern ethical standards.  They were not uncovered, however, until a few years ago when a historian discovered the files in the midst of doing archival research on one of the scientists, who had also been involved in the Tuskegee syphilis study in the US.

Since her discovery, the US and Guatemalan governments have both issued apologies and reports condemning the studies (here and here), and the US pledged a relatively small amount of money to support the Guatemalan government’s efforts to improve surveillance and control of H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases in that country. However, individual compensation to the victims of the experiments and their families has not been forthcoming; the victims calls for a voluntary compensation program to be established have gone unheeded, and they have also been unable to prevail in court, for a variety of jurisdictional and technical reasons.

As Glenn Cohen and I argued following the victims’ first court loss in 2012, compensation is a moral imperative.  We expressed support for a voluntary compensation program, but in its absence, alternative mechanisms of justice are essential.  Therefore, we were heartened to hear that a petition for the victims was just filed in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., by the Office of Human Rights for the Archdiocese of Guatemala, represented by the UC Irvine School of Law International Human Rights Clinic and The City Project of Los Angeles.  The petition claims violations of the rights to life, health, freedom from torture, and crimes against humanity under both the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, and the American Convention on Human Rights, as well as the denial of a right to a remedy for human rights violations.

There are still a number of hurdles ahead, not the least of which is determining which individuals would actually be entitled to compensation, as the record keeping in the initial experiments was so poor and so much time has passed.  But we are heartened that advocates are still pressing forward for these victims and hope that justice, though certainly delayed, will not continue to be denied.

More information on the petition is available here.

A Circuit Split on Contraceptives Coverage

Perhaps foreshadowed by the dissent in the 10th Circuit that I wrote about here, the 8th Circuit has now officially launched a circuit split regarding the legal validity of the accommodation that allows modified compliance/objection to the contraceptives coverage mandate.  Unlike the seven other circuits to have considered the question since Hobby Lobby, the 8th Circuit yesterday issued opinions upholding preliminary injunctions in two cases (here and here), thereby preventing the mandate+accommodation from being enforced against the objecting non-profits.

First, the 8th Circuit determined that the accommodation still substantially burdens objectors’ religious beliefs because it imposes significant financial penalties if they refuse to comply with a requirement that they view as violative of those religious beliefs. As I explained previously, I do think the court was right to focus on the monetary consequences of objection, rather than assuming that merely filing the required paperwork for an accommodation does not or cannot actually make objectors complicit in the way they claim it does.

Like SCOTUS in Hobby Lobby, the 8th Circuit then went on to assume that the contraceptives coverage mandate advances a compelling government interest, which is the next step in the analysis under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act once the substantial burden test is met.  So far, so good.  But that’s the end of my agreement.

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I Concur with the Dissent (or, More on Little Sisters)

On September 3, the 10th Circuit declined to rehear en banc several challenges to the contraceptives coverage mandate filed by non-profit organizations, including Little Sisters of the Poor. As SCOTUSBlog explains, these organizations had not themselves asked for en banc review, having already moved on to SCOTUS, but the judges have the option of calling for a vote themselves, which one or more of them must have done.  The vote came down 7-5 in favor of refusal, with the dissenting judges (i.e., those who wanted en banc review) issuing an explanation of their position.  On this issue, I concur with the dissent.  But I still don’t think the objecting non-profits should be off the hook.

When it comes to the contraceptives coverage mandate, non-profits, and now certain for-profits, are accommodated such that they may be relieved of the responsibility to contract, arrange, pay, or refer for contraceptives coverage if they notify the government or their health insurer of their objection to doing so, such that their insurer (or third party administrator of self-insured plans) can provide free contraceptives to their employees, at no cost to and without the involvement of the employer (all further explained here by Greg Lipper).  However, many organizations continue to argue that the accommodation fails to relieve them of complicity in providing contraceptives against their religious beliefs.  They want flat out exemption from the mandate. Read More

Pinker on the “moral imperative” for bioethics

In his stunning Op-Ed in today’s Boston Globe, Steven Pinker seems to suggest that bioethicists come in only one flavor: conservative. I certainly don’t fit that bill. But there’s a lot I think he gets right in this critically important piece. Why not change the default rules: what if new scientific advances were welcome, unless we had strong reason to worry, rather than the other way around?

Take a look, this is really important.

Update, 8/6/15: Many people have voiced strong objections to Pinker’s piece, taking his admonition that “the primary moral goal for today’s bioethics” should be to “[g]et out of the way” as squarely directed at IRBs.  His statement was definitely overbroad, but I didn’t take him to mean that we don’t need IRBs or human subjects protection at all.  In fact, he explicitly acknowledges that “individuals must be protected from identifiable harms” and recognizes the importance of existing safeguards for subject safety and informed consent. Instead, I read his piece not just with human subjects research in mind, but all of science. At the most basic level, I think he is making a very reasonable call for us to be aware of the risks of overprotection, of trying to imagine everything that could ever go wrong, with blinders on to the consequences of what will happen if we sit still, worrying for too long.

Some other reactions from around the web:

http://alicedreger.com/node/210

http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/letters/2015/08/05/pace-research-should-not-barrel-ahead-ethical-safeguards/vwA1TOaKvxRicYh8o3253O/story.html

Another Opinion Upholding the Contraceptives Coverage Accommodation

Today, the 10th Circuit issued its opinion in the Little Sisters of the Poor case, holding that the accommodation offered to religious nonprofits – and now also to certain closely-held for-profits – is legally acceptable under the standard imposed by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  The accommodation, just recently finalized in its current form, allows eligible employers to avoid covering contraceptives for their employees so long as they notify their insurer or the government of their religious objection to doing so. Importantly, employees are still legally guaranteed access to free contraceptives through alternate mechanisms, usually the via insurer directly.

The 10th Circuit’s opinion represents the fifth win for the administration on the accommodation issue following Hobby Lobby. (Note that Hobby Lobby was about an employer who was not previously eligible for the accommodation.)  The RFRA standard provides that the government “may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

In Little Sisters, the 10th Circuit dispensed with the RFRA claim by holding that there was no substantial burden, one of the threshold questions in the RFRA analysis.  It explained that the fact of the employer’s opt-out does not *cause* contraceptives coverage (i.e., by requiring another party to provide coverage in their stead), which instead is mandated by federal law.  It also determined that there is no substantial burden from complicity in the overall scheme to deliver contraceptive coverage, i.e., by delivering notice of objection, because their only involvement in the scheme is the act of opting out.  Thus, RFRA’s protections were not implicated, and the accommodation can stand.

I fully agree with the result in this case, but would have gotten there another way.

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New HHS Rules on Contraceptive Coverage

Today, HHS released new final regulations further clarifying the contraceptives coverage mandate.  I have not had the chance to fully digest these, but you can read them here.

Key nuggets, pulled straight from the text:

  • These final regulations continue to allow eligible organizations to choose between using EBSA Form 700 or the alternative process consistent with the Wheaton interim order. The alternative process provides that an eligible organization may notify HHS in writing of its religious objection to covering all or a subset of contraceptive services. The notice must include the name of the eligible organization and the basis on which it qualifies for an accommodation; its objection based on sincerely held religious beliefs to covering some or all contraceptive services, as applicable (including an identification of the subset of contraceptive services to which coverage the eligible organization objects, if applicable); the plan name and type (that is, whether it is a student health insurance plan within the meaning of 45 CFR 147.145(a) or a church plan within the meaning of ERISA section 3(33)); and the name and contact information for any of the plan’s third party administrators and health insurance issuers.
  • [T]hese final regulations extend the [existing] accommodation to a for-profit entity that is not publicly traded, is majority-owned by a relatively small number of individuals, and objects to providing contraceptive coverage based on its owners’ religious beliefs. This definition includes for-profit entities that are controlled and operated by individual owners who are likely to have associational ties, are personally identified with the entity, and can be regarded as conducting personal business affairs through the entity. . . . Based on the information available, it appears that the definition of closely held for-profit entity set forth in these final regulations includes all the for-profit corporations that have filed lawsuits alleging that the contraceptive coverage requirement, absent an accommodation, violates RFRA.

The upshot(s):

  • The extended accommodation allowing eligible objecting employers to notify the government rather than their insurer directly has simply been changed from an interim to a final rule.  This won’t make the pending non-profit litigation go away because these employers still object to two things: (1) having to provide their insurer’s contact information to the government so the government can notify the insurers of their obligations to provide free contraceptives; and (2) having to continue to maintain relationships with insurers who will provide contraceptives.
  • The extension of the accommodation’s eligibility criteria to include closely-held for-profit employers has now been made official following proposed regulation in the wake of Hobby Lobby. In the interim period after Hobby Lobby, objecting for-profits could simply object and avoid the mandate – and their insurers did not have to step in because the accommodation did not yet apply. Now it does, and these employers will likely raise similar objections to the accommodation as have already been raised by their non-profit counterparts.

Let’s just face it – litigation stemming from the ACA will never go away…