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) 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.