Of Data Challenges

By Leslie Francis

Cross-posted from the HealthLawProfs blog.

Challenges designed to spur innovative uses of data are springing up frequently. These are contests, sponsored by a mix of government agencies, industry, foundations, a variety of not-for-profit groups, or even individuals. They offer prize money or other incentives for people or teams to come up with solutions to a wide range of problems. In addition to grand prizes, they often offer many smaller prizes or networking opportunities. The latest such challenge to come to my attention was announced August 19 by the Knight Foundation: $2 million for answers to the question “how can we harnass data and information for the health of communities?” Companion prizes, of up to $200,000, are also being offered by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the California Healthcare Foundation.

Such challenges are also a favorite of the Obama administration. From promoting Obamacare among younger Americans (over 100 prizes of up to $30,000)–now entered by Karl Rove’s Crossroads group–to arms control and identification of sewer overflows, the federal government has gone in for challenges big time. Check out challenge.gov to see the impressive list. Use of information and technological innovation feature prominently in the challenges, but there is also a challenge for “innovative communications strategies to target individuals who experience high levels of involuntary breaks (“churn”) in health insurance coverage” (from SAMHSA), a challenge to design posters to educate kids about concussions (from CDC), a challenge to develop a robot that can retrieve samples (from NASA), and a challenge to use technology for atrocity prevention (from USAID and Humanity United). All in all, some 285 challenges sponsored by the federal government are currently active, although for some the submission period has closed. Read More

A Ruling from the 5th Circuit: Pregnancy and Breastfeeding ARE Related

By Leslie Francis

A case from the employment discrimination world that might be of interest to health law folks is EEOC v. Houston Funding II, Ltd., 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 10933 (May 30, 2013). The employee in the case, Donnicia Venters, was told that her position had been filled when she returned to work post partum and requested to use space in a back room to express milk. The issue in the case was whether firing Venters for expressing breast milk is sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The district court had concluded that it was not, as a matter of law, and the 5th Circuit reversed. Although at first glance this outcome is apparently a favorable one for women and children, it also reveals ongoing mismatches between anti-discrimination law in the US and the health needs of workers and their families.

The relevant detail of employment discrimination law is that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) provides that discrimination “on the basis of” or “because of” sex includes discrimination on the basis of or because of “pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” In holding that breastfeeding is a related medical condition of pregnancy, the 5th Circuit stated “Lactation is the physiological process of secreting milk from mammary glands and is directly caused by hormonal changes associated with pregnancy and childbirth.” Thus, on the 5th Circuit’s plain meaning interpretation of the statute, breastfeeding is within the PDA.

Other courts have reached conclusions less favorable to breastfeeding. The district court in Colorado wrote thus in deciding that a refusal to give breaks for breast feeding was not sex or disability discrimination: “A plaintiff could potentially succeed on a claim if she alleged and was able to prove that lactation was a medical condition related to pregnancy, and that this condition, and not a desire to breastfeed, was the reason for the discriminatory action(s) that she suffered.” Falk v. City of Glendale, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87278 (D. Colo. 2012). Indeed, understaffing at the Glendale police department was so severe that no one was able to take breaks, even to use the restroom—so the court concluded that Falk’s problem was equal opportunity bad working conditions, not sex discrimination. Read More

Our Bodies, Our Cells: FDA Regulation of Autologous Adult Stem Cell Therapies

By Mary Ann Chirba, J.D., D.Sc., M.P.H. and Alice A. Noble, J.D., M.P.H.

Stem cells have been an endless source of fascination and controversy since Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996. This month’s announcement of a cloned human embryo from a single skin cell [1] came on the heels of Sir John B. Gurdon and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka’s receipt of the 2012 Nobel for Physiology and Medicine for their work with induced pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells can be embryonic or induced. Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) can generally be obtained from human embryos or by cloning embryos through somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), as was done for Dolly.  Gurdon and Yamanaka demonstrated that pluripotent cells may also be formed by reprogramming adult cells to an embryonic state, resulting in induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells without having to use eggs or cloning, or destroy embryos. However derived, pluripotent cells are capable of differentiating into virtually any cell type in the human body. This imbues them with great promise for scientific breakthroughs and medical advances, but also raises serious ethical, legal and safety concerns about their use.

Less controversial are “multipotent” adult stem cells (ASCs) which do not involve embryos or raise as many safety concerns as pluripotent cells.  ASCs are found throughout the body.  Their ability to differentiate is more limited than pluripotent cells but is vast nonetheless. The NIH’s clinicaltrials.gov site lists some 4500 ASC trials as compared with 27 for embryonic stem cells and 21 for induced pluripotent stem cells. Recent announcements of new stem cell treatments usually involve ASCs, such as last month’s news that a toddler born without a trachea received a new one made from her own adult stem cells.  It is therefore no surprise that ASCs have captured the attention of researchers, investors, physicians, patients and – increasingly – regulators, both here and abroad.

A growing number of physicians routinely offer treatments involving ASCs to their patients which can be performed in their offices.  Autologous adult stem cells, used to treat a variety of conditions, are harvested from the patient, processed, and returned to the same patient. It is no surprise that moving ASCs from laboratories to physician offices raises complex questions of law. We consider one of the more pressing ones: to what extent can the FDA regulate a physician’s ability to treat a patient with that patient’s own stem cells?  In the coming months, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments on this very issue in United States v. Regenerative Sciences.[2]

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A Decade’s Quest for Safer Drugs: Congressional Committee Green Lights Regulation of Drug Supply Chains and Compounding Manufacturers

By Mary Ann Chirba and Alice A. Noble

On May 22. 2013, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee unanimously approved S.959, “The Pharmaceutical Compounding Quality and Accountability Act,” and S.957, “The Drug Supply and Security Act,” (now incorporated into S. 959 as an amendment).  Congressional efforts to enact comprehensive legislation to improve drug safety and secure the nation’s drug supply chain have lingered for over a decade. The lack of federal uniformity has allowed a patchwork of state legislation to emerge, attracting the less scrupulous to those states with the lowest security. The issue finally gained traction among HELP Committee members when 55 people died and 741 more became ill after contracting fungal meningitis from contaminated steroid injections made by the New England Compounding Center (NECC). Committee member Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) stated that given prior reports of problems with NECC, this tragedy could have been averted but for a “shocking failure to act” by NECC, state and federal regulators, and Congress.

As NECC’s role in the meningitis outbreak came to light,gaps in regulatory oversight did, too. The federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA)[1] currently recognizes only two categories of pharmaceutical manufacturers: commercial pharmaceutical companies and compounding pharmacies. To qualify as the latter under federal law, the entity must make individual or small batch, patient-specific drugs and do so only with a physician’s prescription for that patient.  Compounded drugs must be either be unavailable in the commercial market or needed in commercially unavailable doses or combinations. The FDCA exempts such compounders from its pre-marketing requirements applicable to commercially manufactured drugs. Thus, federal law clearly covers commercial pharmaceutical manufacturers, state law just as clearly oversees and licenses pharmacies but as the NECC case demonstrates, there is nothing clear about the responsibility for inspecting, licensing or otherwise overseeing compounders that do not fill prescriptions on a per patient basis.

Instead of compounding in response to an individual prescription, the New England Compounding Center made large batches of drugs for institutional buyers such as hospitals. Many of its drugs were commercially unavailable but some were knock-offs of marketed FDA-approved drugs – a practice which is clearly unauthorized. NECC’s business model was certainly not unique; neither was the limited and erratic response of state and federal regulators to complaints about the facility’s unsafe manufacturing practices. Congress knew that large-scale compounders existed along with concerns about their safety. Several members of the Senate HELP Committee had worked on curative legislation for over ten years, but made few inroads until the NECC crisis prompted the  HELP Committee to shift from park into drive.

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Medical Malpractice, the Affordable Care Act and State Provider Shield Laws: More Myth than Necessity?

By Mary Ann Chirba and Alice A. Noble

Given the ambitions and reach of the Affordable Care Act, confusion about its intended and inadvertent impact is inevitable. Since its enactment in 2010, the ACA has raised legitimate and less grounded concerns among various stakeholders ranging from individuals and employers facing coverage mandates to States deciding whether and how to implement the Act’s Medicaid expansions. One item has received far less attention even though it weighs heavily on any provider engaged in the clinical practice of medicine: the ACA’s impact on medical malpractice liability. The Act does little to address medical malpractice head on. Nevertheless, physicians and other providers, the states and even some members of Congress have expressed concern that the Act will increase a provider’s exposure to medical malpractice liability.

In response, the American Medical Association has drafted model legislation to shield providers from newly created malpractice claims resulting from the ACA. It would prevent malpractice claimants from using federal or state practice guidelines, quality measures, reimbursement criteria and the like to establish or define the standard of care without expert testimony. In Congress, a version of this model, H.R. 1473, was introduced in the House of Representatives in 2012, and again in April of 2013 [link: http://beta.congress.gov/bill/113th-congress/house-bill/1473/cosponsors].

In April, the governor of Georgia signed H.B. 499 [link: http://www.legis.ga.gov/legislation/en-US/display/20132014/HB/499] into law, becoming the first state to pass legislation based on the AMA model act.

This came on the heels of a Medical Association of Georgia Advocacy Brief [link: http://www.mag.org/sites/default/files/downloads/issue-brief-provider-shield2-2013.pdf] stating that the ACA’s “guidelines” concerning health care quality measures; payment adjustments; hospital value-based purchasing; and value-based payment modifiers “will raise [the medical malpractice] standard to unreasonable levels by exposing physicians to a number of new liabilities….” [Emphasis added]

It is too early to tell whether states will follow Georgia’s lead and enact similar measures. What is clear is that such “standard of care protection” or “provider liability shield” legislation raises interesting questions about the ACA’s impact on state medical malpractice law.

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Tools for Teaching the Fungal Meningitis Outbreak

By Jennifer S. Bard

I’m sure many of us are talking about the contaminated steroid injections which have spread a fungal form of meningitis Exserohilum rostratum across the country.   The CDC, which as is usually the case is doing an excellent job of providing clear and current information,  reports that as of “October 17, 2012, a total of 47 patients have laboratory-confirmed fungal meningitis.”  They offer some reassuring information—that “this form of fungal meningitis is not contagious”  and some scary information—that  there are 257 cases and ten deaths in 15 states and that incubation periods last up to a month.

The most recent legal news is that the pharmacy was visited earlier this week by the FDA’s criminal investigative unit and that the first law suit has already been filed in Minnesota Federal District Court by a woman who received a vaccine from the pharmacy but who does not know yet if she has meningitis. Read More

This Week’s Edition of ACA Challenges

By Nicole Huberfeld

Earlier this week, Jonathan Adler wrote in the National Review Online that challenges to the individual mandate were just beginning.

And today, Oklahoma’s September challenge to the ACA is making headlines.  As I have described before, one of the new theories by which Jonathan Adler and the Cato Institute are seeking to thwart the ACA is by challenging the IRS rule that permits tax subsidies in exchanges created by the federal government, which Cato claims is not supported by the text of the ACA.  (State exchanges are supposedly the only avenue for obtaining tax subsidies for private insurance purchases.)  Oklahoma has brought this challenge to life in federal district court, and Cato’s interest in this and other challenges was apparently reiterated by Professor Adler during a Cato-organized panel on Wednesday. Read More

Marijuana Initiatives in the Upcoming Election

By Leslie P. Francis

In a year of a presidential election, initiatives are likely to get lost in the shuffle unless they have implications for the race at the top–as did the state efforts to ban same-sex marriage did some years ago. This election season features a number of efforts to legalize marijuana.

Several of these would legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, whether or not for medical use.  Colorado Amendment 64 is a constitutional amendment to legalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana by state residents over the age of 21.  Oregon Measure 80, the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act, would legalize growing and selling marijuana.  Washington I-502 would create exceptions to state law enforcement for adults possessing less than an ounce of marijuana.  Growers and sellers would be required to obtain state licenses, and sales would be taxed–with revenue going to state drug prevention programs.It would also establish a 5 nano-gram/millileter of blood limit for adults driving and a zero tolerance policy for those under 21. Read More

The DOMA Petition You Should Be Following

By Nicole Huberfeld

You may be thinking “DOMA? Hello, this is HEALTH LAW.”  Please stick with me for a moment.  The Supreme Court appears to be collecting petitions for certiorari regarding the Defense of Marriage Act, likely to determine which circuit’s decision is the best vehicle for considering the constitutionality of this federal law.  One such petition results from the First Circuit’s decision in Massachusetts v. Department of Health and Human Services/Hara v. Office of Personnel Management, which held that section 3 of DOMA violated the Fifth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.  The court reasoned that promoting marriage is not rationally related to denying federal benefits to same-sex couples, thereby avoiding the creation of a new category of suspect class.  The twist is that the state of Massachusetts also claims that section 3 of DOMA, which denies federal economic benefits to same-sex couples, exceeds Congress’s Spending Clause authority and infringes the state’s 10th Amendment rights.  While the First Circuit did not agree with the state on these points, it did incorporate federalism concerns into its Equal Protection Clause analysis by noting that states traditionally have defined marriage, therefore the federal government cannot protect the state of Massachusetts from its own definition of marriage by promoting heterosexual marriage. Read More

Congressmen are Concerned that Meaningful Use Stage 2 is Too Weak

By Leslie P. Francis

On October 4, four Republican Congressman, all with powerful positions concerning health care, wrote Secretary Sebelius urging suspension of “meaningful use” Stage 2 payments until a stronger program is in place. The Congressmen, Dave Camp (Chair of the House Ways & Means Committee), Wally Herger (Chair of the Ways & Means Subcommittee on Health), Fred Upton (Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce), and Joe Pitts (Chair of the Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Health), expressed concern that the Stage 2 regulations are too weak to insure genuine interoperability of electronic medical records.  As a result, the Congressmen contended, a great deal of taxpayer money will be wasted on payments for electronic records that do little to improve care or reduce costs.

The Congressmen have a point, despite the apparant partisanship of the letter.  There is a history of apparent reluctance on the part of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, and with it HHS, to meet head-on industry complaints about the difficulty and costs of meeting standards or industry contentions that regulation will stifle innovation. Models of technology forcing that were employed in furtherance of environmental protection appear not to have been considered by ONC and HHS. The requirement to meet Meaningful Use Stage 2 was delayed by a year, from 2013 to 2014, to allow vendors more time to develop products. As I indicated in an earlier post, ONC has decided not to develop governance rules for health IT exchanges, out of industry concern for impact on innovation.   The stage 2 meaningful use requirements are not very strong, either, as the Congressmen point out. For example, core requirements are only that 50% of prescriptions be electronic, that only 50% of care referrals must be accompanied by electronic care summaries, that only 50% of patients must have access to health information (with 5% using it), and the EHR be capable of generating only one list of patients by condition. (For a handy comparison of stage 1 and stage 2 certification criteria, see here). All of these–and other–requirements are important to anticipated improvements in care to be garnered from the introduction of EHRs.  For example, generation of lists of patients with a specified condition (e.g. diabetes) may be an important way to ascertain the quality of patient management across a practice. Read More