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Mass embryo destruction, reproductive never events, and the not-quite-Wild West

By Dov Fox

Information found in this new post by Dov Fox is also available in Slate’s March 19th article In Vitro Injuries: How should courts compensate would-be parents when assisted reproductive technology goes terribly wrong?

More than 1 in 10 Americans seek fertility treatment. IVF and similar technologies result in 64,000 babies—1.6% annually—of all those born in the U.S. each year. For people willing to move heaven and earth to form a family, this is the medicine of miracles. But reproductive mishaps turn these dreams into nightmares. Some result in unplanned pregnancies. Others, lost chances for parenthood. I’ve considered the legal complexities elsewhere at law review length. (A reply to critics Robert Rabin, Carol Sanger, and Gregory Keating is out shortly with Columbia.) But it’s the facts that have made headlines of late.

The Today Show and Nightly News interviewed me in the wake of recent storage tank malfunctions at two major fertility clinics—one in San Francisco, the other outside Cleveland—that destroyed more than 4,000 cryopreserved eggs and embryos. The Cleveland facility said that “alerts that should have been sent to staff were never sent.” These incidents have left over a thousand affected couples mourning future children who would never be; practitioners wondering how something like this could have happened; and prospective parents around the country worrying that tragedy could strike again.

It’s not the first time. NBC News uncovered a history of freezer malfunctions. Over a decade ago in Florida over 60 cancer survivors lost their stored sperm “when a tank made by the same manufacturer failed.” Exact figures for such breakdowns are hard to come by, however. Elsewhere in health care delivery, most states mandate reporting of “never events,” such as surgery on the wrong body part or patient. But the United State has no public or private system for tracking what I’ve referred to as “reproductive” never events, let alone less serious errors. So it’s impossible to know with any reliability or precision the incidence of professional mistakes in matters of procreation.

Available data points are bracing. A 2008 survey of nearly half of all U.S. fertility clinics found that more than one in five misdiagnosed, mislabeled, or mishandled reproductive materials. A 2014 study revealed that popular methods of prenatal screening for fetal abnormality sound “a false alarm half of the time.” And in 2016, a national ratings website found that 18-24% of fertility patients reported damaged or destroyed samples among a host of other errors.

None among regulators, agencies, insurers, medical boards, or professional societies require safeguards that might prevent mistakes like these from happening in the first place. The U.S. stands out among developed countries for its failure to rein in wrongdoing that forces parenthood on people who don’t want it or that denies it to those who do. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, a national agency requires that all facilities comply with a standard of professional conduct that covers “all details of the clinical and embryological practice associated with assisted reproductive technology.”

That agency—the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority—maintains rigorous laboratory inspections, often without notice. And even under its careful oversight, the agency reports that 1 out of every 100 fertility procedures—over 500 each year—involve reproductive materials that’s lost, damaged or destroyed. It stands to reason that these errors are at least as common in the United States, where fertility clinics, sperm banks, and surrogacy agencies aren’t monitored or supervised in any meaningful way. My own research uncovered hundreds of American cases in which procreation was negligently imposed, deprived, or confounded.

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Call for Papers: Wiet Life Sciences Scholars Conference

Loyola University Chicago’s nationally acclaimed Beazley Institute for Health Law and Policy is pleased to invite original research submissions for the annual Wiet Life Science Law Scholars Conference to be held on Friday, September 7, 2018.

The conference is designed to provide an intellectual venue for life science professors, scholars, and practitioners to convene and discuss current research and scholarship.  The phrase “life science law” intends to capture diverse disciplines that involve significant issues of life science research and development, spanning food and drug law, health law, intellectual property (IP) law, biotechnology law, environmental law, administrative law, and antitrust law.  Our goal is to foster recognition of life science law as a cohesive, dynamic area of legal study and strengthen connections among national life science law scholars.

Loyola is currently soliciting 750-1,000 word abstracts reflecting early or mid-stage ideas for the purpose of workshopping with other conference scholars.  Modeled after successful events for law professors and scholars in other areas, we will organize scholars in topical panels of three to five authors with approximately 15 minutes allotted to each abstract presentation, followed by 15 minutes of intensive discussion with scholar attendees.  Author abstracts will be distributed one week prior to the conference to scholar participants; authors may also submit draft articles for distribution.  Scholars are expected to review materials of fellow panel members.

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FDA Commissioner Rolls Back 40 Years of Orthodoxy on Cost-Exposure

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb

Speaking yesterday at America’s Health Insurance Plans’ (AHIP) National Health Policy Conference, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb railed against patient cost-exposure (e.g., copays).   His prepared speech said:

Patients shouldn’t be penalized by their biology if they need a drug that isn’t on formulary. Patients shouldn’t face exorbitant out of pocket costs, and pay money where the primary purpose is to help subsidize rebates paid to a long list of supply chain intermediaries, or is used to buy down the premium costs for everyone else. After all, what’s the point of a big co-pay on a costly cancer drug? Is a patient really in a position to make an economically-based decision? Is the co-pay going to discourage overutilization? Is someone in this situation voluntary seeking chemo?  Of course not.  Yet the big co-pay or rebate on the costly drug can help offset insurers’ payments to the pharmacy, and reduce average insurance premiums. But sick people aren’t supposed to be subsidizing the healthy.

Wow.  This may seem like common sense to some readers, but it is revolutionary to hear from a senior American government official, and indeed a Republican one no less.

In a new paper, Victor Laurion and I have chronicled the ways in which American politicians at the highest levels have blindly embraced the opposite point of view for half-a-century.  This sort of ideological adherence to simplistic economic reasoning (which James Kwak calls ‘economism‘) is  why U.S. health insurance exposes patients to all sorts of deductibles, copays, and coinsurance.  As a result, even insured Americans find themselves “underinsured” — denied access to care or falling into bankruptcy if they stretch to pay nonetheless. Read More

Simulated Side Effects: FDA Uses Novel Computer Model to Guide Kratom Policy

By Mason Marks

FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb issued a statement on Tuesday about the controversial plant Mitragyna speciosa, which is also known as kratom. According to Gottlieb, kratom poses deadly health risks. His conclusion is partly based on a computer model that was announced in his recent statement. The use of simulations to inform drug policy is a new development with implications that extend beyond the regulation of kratom. We currently live in the Digital Age, a period in which most information is in digital form. However, the Digital Age is rapidly evolving into an Age of Algorithms in which computer software increasingly assumes the roles of human decision makers. The FDA’s use of computer simulations to evaluate drugs is a bold first step into this new era. This essay discusses the potential risks of basing federal drug policies on computer models that have not been thoroughly explained or validated (using the kratom debate as a case study).

Kratom grows naturally in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Malaysia where it has been used for centuries as a stimulant and pain reliever. In recent years, the plant has gained popularity in the United States as an alternative to illicit and prescription narcotics. Kratom advocates claim it is harmless and useful for treating pain and easing symptoms of opioid withdrawal. However, the FDA contends it has no medical use and causes serious or fatal complications. As a result, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) may categorize kratom in Schedule I, its most heavily restricted category.

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How to “Lower Drug Prices” Without Lowering Drug Prices

Yesterday, Alex Azar was sworn in as the Secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services. A key question is whether Azar will take action against high drug prices, and if so, what he will do. At his confirmation hearing, Azar stated clearly that “drug prices are too high.” And during Azar’s swearing-in ceremony, the President stated that Azar was “going to get those prescription drug prices way down.” But I’m skeptical that Secretary Azar will do much to address the problem in the near term.

To be clear, I’m skeptical for a host of reasons, none of which are necessarily reflective of Secretary Azar. Much like health care, drug pricing is complicated. HHS should (and will) worry about potential unintended consequences of drug pricing proposals, proceeding cautiously and taking concerns seriously. HHS’ ability to act may be limited without Congressional involvement, and Congress has thus far been unable to act on this issue. Other proposals may take years to develop or implement, leaving patients without relief in the interim.

As a former President of Eli Lilly, Secretary Azar understands the drug pricing system deeply. He’s absolutely right that “there’s not one action that all of a sudden fixes this.” But if Azar is under pressure to deliver drug pricing changes in the short term, I’d expect to see focus in three main areas. Here’s the problem, though: at least two of these would not necessarily lower drug prices individually or drug spending overall. They might well increase overall spending. Importantly, that may not be a bad thing (as I’ll explain). But they won’t hurt the bottom line of the drug companies the President believes are “getting away with murder,” and they may well bolster it. The third area may lower prices – but it wouldn’t be Azar’s accomplishment.

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“Right to Try” Does Not Help Patients

Co-Blogged by Christopher Robertson and Kelly McBride Folkers (research associate at the Division of Medical Ethics of the NYU School of Medicine)

In 2014, Arizonans overwhelmingly voted in favor of a ballot referendum that claimed to allow terminally ill patients the “right to try” experimental drugs that have not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Despite the policy’s broad support, it has yet to help a single patient in Arizona obtain an experimental drug that they couldn’t have gotten before. Thirty-seven other states have also passed right to try bills, but likewise have seen little real impact for patients.

“Right to try” has moved to the federal stage, as the U.S. Senate unanimously passed such a bill last August without even holding a hearing. The House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee on Health considered the bill in an October hearing, but it failed to garner much enthusiasm among committee members. Vice President Mike Pence has advocated for a federal right to try law, and he recently met with FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb and House leadership to encourage pass of the bill this year. Read More

Bioethicist Art Caplan: A New Mind-Body Problem

A new piece by Bill of Health contributor Arthur Caplan, with Lisa Kearns, in The Hastings Center Bioethics Forum:

Not since Rene Descartes gazed from his garret window in early 17th-century Paris and wondered whether those were men or hats and coats covering “automatic machines” he saw roaming the streets has the issue of personal identity and your cranium been of such import. Descartes feared a world that he alone occupied due to deception by the devil. Today we face a different mind-body challenge in the form of a devil we know: Italian neuroscientist Sergio Canavero. He recently announced that the first human head transplant is imminent.

For bioethicists, the moral critiques of this surgery practically write themselves: Are we merely our bodies? How can a person so ill as to wish to trade in his lifelong corporeal companion be considered competent to consent to such a drastic procedure? How can family members consent to donate a body that they could very well run into — and recognize — at the beach or gym? What if a left-handed person received a right-handed body? What if a lifelong Chicago Bears fan woke to find himself attached to the green-and-gold-tattooed torso of a former Packers fan? Would transplant recipients need to buy whole new wardrobes? Who will pay? […]

Read the full article here!

Register Now! The Policy, Politics & Law of Cancer Conference, Feb 8-9, 2018 at Yale Law School

The Opioid Crisis Requires Evidence-Based Solutions, Part II: How the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction Ignored Promising Medical Treatments

By Mason Marks

Last year more than 64,000 Americans died of drug overdose, which is “now the leading cause of death” in people under 50. Opioids kill an estimated 91 Americans each day and are responsible for most drug-related deaths in the US. This public health crisis requires solutions that are supported by science and reason instead of emotion and political ideology. In Part I of this three-part series, I discuss how the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis misinterpreted scientific studies and used data to support unfounded conclusions. In this second part of the series, I explore how the Opioid Commission ignored medical interventions that are used successfully in the U.S. and abroad. In Part III, I will discuss non-medical interventions such as drug checking and safe injection sites. The Commission’s failure to consider these options is likely driven by emotions such as fear and disgust rather than a careful review of scientific evidence.

Medical marijuana is currently accepted in 29 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. It is also permitted in at least 10 countries. However, the Opioid Commission outright rejected calls to consider the use of medical marijuana as an alternative to opioids for managing pain. Prior to the Commission’s first meeting, it solicited input from industry and members of the public on how to address the opioid crisis. In response, it received over 8,000 public comments. According to VICE News, which obtained the documents by submitting a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, most comments were submitted by individuals urging the Commission to “consider medical marijuana as a solution to the opioid epidemic.” A spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a body of the Executive Branch that provides administrative support to the Opioid Commission, reports receiving “more than 7,800 public comments relating to marijuana.” Despite these comments, in its final report, the Commission dismissed the notion that marijuana should play a role in treating chronic pain and opioid addiction. Its report cited a recent study from the American Journal of Psychiatry, which concluded that marijuana use was associated with an increased risk of opioid abuse. However, this study relied on data that was collected over twelve years ago. One of its authors, Columbia Medical School Professor Mark Olfson, told CNN that if the data were collected today, they could yield different results.

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2017’s Word Of The Year In Health Law And Bioethics: Uncertainty

This is the first post by Carmel Shachar and I. Glenn Cohen that appears on the Health Affairs Blog in a series stemming from the Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review event to be held at Harvard Law School on Tuesday, December 12, 2017.

2017 was a year of tremendous uncertainty for many areas of public policy. Health care policy was no exception, most prominently with an almost successful push by Congressional Republicans to radically revise the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Medical research and bioethics also faced uncertainty, with the struggle to ethically engage with new technologies and to better understand the boundaries around self-determination. As we look over the past year and anticipate the coming one, the overarching question remains: Is it possible to run a health law and health care system given this level of flux?

Healthcare Policy in Flux

2017 saw a new presidential administration and Congress. Seeking to capitalize on the Republican control of the White House and both Houses of Congress, Congressional Republicans sought to make good on their campaign promise to “replace and repeal” the ACA. The proposed legislation would have dramatically reshaped our health care landscape, including ending Medicaid’s financial status as an entitlement program, and undercutting the health insurance Marketplaces championed by the Obama administration. Despite the fact that the ACA is not yet a decade old, this would have been a seismic shift in the way many Americans receive their health care. […]

Read the full post here.

We will be discussing these issues and more at the Sixth Annual Health Law Year in P/Review conference, held on December 12, 2017, at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, MA. If you find these issues interesting, we invite you to join us as the event is free and open to the public (registered required). For those unable to join us in Cambridge, some of our conference presenters will participate in a blog series to follow  at the Health Affairs Blog. Stay tuned!