On August 31, 2016, FDA issued a notification of public hearing and request for comments on manufacturer communications regarding unapproved uses of approved or cleared medical products. The hearing will be held on November 9-10, 2016, and individuals wishing to present information at the hearing must register by October 19, 2016. The deadline for written comments is January 9, 2017.

In the notice, FDA posed a series of questions on which it is seeking input from a broad group of stakeholders, including manufacturers, health care providers, patient advocates, payors, academics and public interest groups. The topics on which FDA is seeking feedback are broad, but generally include:

  • The impact of off-label communications on public health,
  • The impact of changes in the health care system on the development of high-quality data on new uses of cleared or approved products,
  • Preserving incentives for manufacturers to seek approval for new uses, standards for truthful and non-misleading information,
  • Factors FDA should consider in monitoring and bringing enforcement actions based on off-label communications by manufacturers,
  • The extent to which data on which off-label communications are based should be publicly available, and
  • The changes FDA should consider to existing regulations governing manufacturers’ communications regarding their products.

This announcement comes in the wake of increased pressure from lawmakers, public interest groups, and regulated industry for FDA to issue guidance or propose regulatory changes to address recent litigation clarifying commercial speech protections for pharmaceutical and medical devices manufacturers under the First Amendment. On May 26, 2016, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell expressing concern that FDA had failed to clarify its current thinking on permissible manufacturer communications about uses of cleared and approved drugs and devices beyond the scope of their approved labeling. In the letter, the committee noted that FDA had neither issued guidance, including guidance on the permissible scope of “scientific exchange” that has been on FDA’s Guidance Agenda since 2014, nor conducted the public hearing it announced in May 2015 in connection with negotiations on the proposed 21st Century Cures bill. The committee expressed concern that HHS was preventing FDA from issuing guidance or proposing new regulations to address a string of recent court victories for companies and individuals prosecuted for off-label communications about drug and medical devices.

In light of the current state of First Amendment commercial speech protections, which makes it clear that manufacturers’ truthful and non-misleading speech regarding their products is not unlawful even if that speech includes uses of their products that have not been approved or cleared by FDA, other stakeholders have actively encouraged FDA to issue guidance or modify its regulations to conform its regulatory oversight and enforcement activities to this reality. While stakeholder groups have been actively engaged on these issues for several years, recent examples include the February 2016 white paper issued by the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy outlining policy options for off-label communications, and the joint release by BIO and PhRMA of the Principles on Responsible Sharing of Truthful and Non-Misleading Information about Medicines with Health Care Professionals and Payers on July 27, 2016.

Despite pressure from interested stakeholders, FDA has yet to propose changes to its regulations or issue long-awaited guidance on a number of topics related to manufacturers’ communications regarding off-label uses of their cleared or approved products. While FDA’s 2016 Guidance Agenda, updated most recently on August 6, 2016, continues to promise guidance on manufacturer communications regarding unapproved, unlicensed, or uncleared uses of approved, licensed, or cleared human drugs, biologics, animal drugs and medical devices and the inclusion of health care economic information in promotional labeling and advertising for prescription drugs, among others, the post-election timeline for the public hearing and FDA’s ongoing collection of feedback announced in the August 31st notice may suggest that FDA is going back to the drawing board. In particular, the focus in the notice’s background discussion and in FDA’s questions on the public health impact of off-label communications may suggest that FDA is re-evaluating its position in response to the HHS concerns about broader dissemination of off-label by manufacturers that were highlighted in the Energy and Commerce committee letter. While FDA’s notice and request for comments is a step in the right direction, it likely signals a further delay in the issuance of guidance that is needed to bring greater clarity to the currently unsettled regulatory framework for FDA’s oversight of manufacturers’ off-label communications, and a punting of these important decisions to the next administration.