In Case you missed it: Research Fellow & Lecturer in Law, Seton Hall Law’s Center for Health & Pharmaceutical Law & Policy, Kate Greenwood, on American Law Journal TV regarding Pharmaceutical Off-Label Marketing and Free Speech. A regular blogger here at HRW, Kate Greenwood appeared along with attorneys Hope Freiwald of Dechert, LLP and Brian J. McCormick, Jr., of Sheller, P.C.
As predicted, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Sorrell v. IMS Health pharmaceutical companies have raised First Amendment challenges to the ban on off-label promotion on a number of fronts. Most recently, Par Pharmaceutical sued to invalidate the ban to the extent that it “criminalize[s] Par’s truthful and non-misleading speech to healthcare professionals concerning the FDA-approved use of its FDA-approved prescription drug.” How is it that the ban on off-label promotion could be interpreted to bar the on-label promotion in which Par wishes to engage? At the heart of Par’s dispute with the government are the “call plans” that pharmaceutical companies develop using the prescriber-specific prescription data at issue in Sorrell.
Call plans set forth which physicians pharmaceutical sales representatives should visit and how often. In an article in the current issue of Next Generation Pharmaceutical magazine, Matthew Linkewich and Jay Margolis of IMS Health explain that a “properly conceived and configured … call plan directs reps to those physicians whose practice characteristics, constellation of prescribing behaviors and attitudes are conducive to supporting the brand goals.” Because call plans embody “brand goals,” the government has focused on them as evidencing companies’ intent to engage in off-label promotion.
For example, in a December 15, 2010 press release announcing a $214.5 million settlement with Elan Corporation, the Department of Justice highlighted the fact that Elan’s “off-label marketing efforts” for its anti-epilepsy drug Zonegran “targeted non-epilepsy prescribers.” A January 28, 2011 press release announcing the formal sentencing of Novartis in a case involving off-label promotion of its anti-epilepsy drug, Trileptal, similarly noted that the company “decided to market and promote Trileptal as a treatment for [two off-label indications, bipolar disease and neuropathic disease] and directed its sales force to visit doctors who would not normally prescribe Trileptal due to the nature of their practice.” Novartis’ plea agreement explains that while epilepsy is treated by epileptologists and neurologists, the company’s call plan included psychiatrists and pain doctors.
The corporate integrity agreement that Novartis entered into as part of the settlement of the Trileptal-related claims against it provides for independent review of “the bases upon which [health care providers] and [health care institutions] belonging to specified medical specialties are included in, or excluded from, the Call Plans based on, among other factors, expected utilization of Government Reimbursed Products for FDA-approved uses or non-FDA-approved uses[.]“ The corporate integrity agreement requires a similar review of the company’s sampling strategy and goes so far as to bar the company from delivering samples to health care providers identified by the company as “belong[ing] to a specialty group that is unlikely to prescribe” the sampled product on-label.
Currently, Par Pharmaceutical’s call plan for its appetite stimulant Megace, which is FDA-approved for the treatment of AIDS-related wasting, does not include oncology practices or long-term care facilities. With the help of an outside consultant, Par determined that physicians in those settings “reasonably may encounter patients suffering from AIDS-related wasting, and thus may have occasion to prescribe [Megace] for its on-label use,” but all agree that they would be much more likely to prescribe the drug off-label to treat wasting in cancer and geriatric patients. In the concluding paragraphs of Par’s complaint, it explains that the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, which is investigating the company’s marketing practices, has informed the company that before it promotes a drug for its on-label use to doctors who prescribe the drug off-label it must “confirm that there are presently a sufficient number of patients being treated for whom the drug could be prescribed on-label.”
As Par points out, the government has offered no guidance regarding the number of on-label patients that a doctor must treat before he or she can be included in a company’s call plan. On the one hand, this is to be expected because the call plan is only one factor that the government considers in determining a company’s intent. On the other hand, it leaves companies like Par without a clear course to follow and, after Sorrell, likely to sue.
Last spring, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) launched the Truthful Prescription Drug Advertising and Promotion Program (known more accessibly as the “Bad Ad Program“). The goal of the program is to enlist the help of health care professionals, consumers, and industry representatives in noting FDA violations and reporting activities and messages that are false or misleading. Common drug marketing violations include omitting or downplaying risk, overstating effectiveness, promoting off-label uses and making misleading drug comparisons. The program is run by the FDA’s Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising, and Communications (DDMAC), which is responsible for “ensuring truthful advertising and promotion of prescription drugs.”
The FDA published a year-end report in May noting that the program has been successful in raising awareness. DDMAC received 328 reports of potentially untruthful or misleading promotions in one year, with the majority of those submitted by health care professionals (188 reports) and consumers (116 reports). The report notes that prior to the Bad Ad program, the FDA received an average of about 104 reports per year.
And the Bad Ad tips are still coming in. Just at the end of last month, DDMAC issued a reprimand letter to Pfizer’s Vice President of US Regulatory Affairs regarding misleading advertising of drugs on the company’s Lipitor website. A complaint to the Bad Ad program observed that the links from the Lipitor site led to pages for the drugs Caduet (for high cholesterol and blood pressure), Norvasc (for high blood pressure), and Chantix (for smoking cessation). But each of those pages failed to note any of the risk information associated with the drugs, which is a violation of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
The FDA states that “by omitting the most serious and frequently occurring risks associated with Caduet, Chantix, and Norvasc, the webpage misleadingly suggests that these drugs are safer than have been demonstrated.” The letter ends with a request that Pfizer immediately stop the dissemination of violative promotional materials for the drugs. The company was to have submitted a written response to the complaint by September 14th that states how they will comply with the request.
While the Bad Ad program may be working to raise awareness among health professionals and consumers, one violation may not be enough to induce compliance from pharmaceutical companies. In fact, DDMAC already chided Pfizer in March of 2009 for omitting risk information for Caduet and Chantix. In that case, Pfizer sponsored links for the drugs on Internet search engines. The sites linked to did not mention any risk information and therefore, presumably, can be said to have also represented the products in a manner which, as above, suggests that these drugs are safer than have been demonstrated.” The most recent letter states that “DDMAC is concerned that Pfizer is continuing to promote its products in a similarly violative manner.” A citizen’s task force is a good way for the FDA to multiply their eyes and ears to keep tabs on misleading and/or violative advertisement. We’ll see what further successes the next year-end report for the Bad Ad program can show. Or, perhaps, success might also be measured in the absence of violations.
[Ed Note: We are pleased to welcome a guest article from Christopher J. Asakiewicz, J.D. He graduated from Seton Hall Law in 2011 with a concentration in Health Law, recently passed the New York Bar Exam (congratulations!) and works for ImClone Systems Corporation, an affiliate of Eli Lilly and Company, drafting and negotiating various clinical documents and patient disclosures with both US and ex-US institutions as well as central and local investigational review boards (IRBs). During law school he worked at Saint Vincents Catholic Medical Centers of New York (SVCMC) in the department of legal affairs, and prior to pursuing a legal education, managed phase IIIB/IV international clinical trials for Pfizer Inc. in the areas of neurology and neurodegenerative diseases.]
Personal data privacy once again has taken front stage in Sorrel v. IMS Health, Inc. Vermont passed the Vermont Confidentiality of Prescription Information Law that allows doctors which prescribe drugs to patients, to decide whether pharmacies can sell their prescription drug prescription records. IMS Health as well as other health information companies contested the law, arguing that the law poses a restriction on commercial speech as access to such information helps pharmaceutical companies market their drugs effectively to doctors. The Supreme Court is now tasked with determining the constitutionality of the restriction on access to prescription information with regards to our First Amendment. 
However, this post is focused on the secondary effects asserted in amici curiae briefs supporting the petitioners of allowing companies to purchase such information, specifically the concern of data privacy and patient re-identification.  Under the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), personal health information is de-identified by your local pharmacy prior to such information being shared with any third party. By de-identifying the data, your personal data cannot, it is believed, be linked or traced back to you. De-identifying your health information is a way for covered entities to share your information without your consent or authorization and in accordance with the law. The information once shared is completely anonymized. After the transfer to a third party, like IMS Health, your information is solely data of zeros and ones that translate to dates of dispensing and drug names. No longer does your prescription record list your name or month or day of birth. 
Briefs in the case assert that data mining firms could, hypothetically, create profiles based on these de-identified prescription records. Such prescription profiles would constitute certain patient's prescription habits, including an individual's medication types, pharmacies visited and dates dispensed. The briefs argue that linking and mining further public information to these drug profiles could result in patient re-identification.
IMS Health, Inc., of course, asserts that it has no knowledge of any patient re-identification and it protects such records with all the security privacy measures set forth under HIPAA and as strengthened by Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH). So what is the issue, I ask?
A pharmaceutical company does not need nor want to know who you are. Aggregate data is more beneficial to a marketing company, rather than just one record with your name on it. What benefit would a company get from a record that says, John Doe, DOB: 01-Jan-1984? The company could send you a mailer, but under the current regulations, you can opt out of the marketing material and it stops there. However, what helps a pharmaceutical company is aggregate datasets that say Dr. Jane Doe, MD writes 100 scripts for Lipitor ® a month. No one cares if the patients are unidentifiable, and most likely, the pharmaceutical company wants to keep it that way. Not only will the de-identified data be cheaper to buy, but it also assures the third party purchasing the data that it is not aiding a HIPAA violation.
Last, it is also asserted that there is no penalty for re-identification of personal health data, but there are stark penalties under HIPAA for "a person who knowingly ... (1) uses or causes to be used a unique health identifier; (2) obtains individually identifiable health information relating to an individual; or (3) discloses individually identifiable health information to another person."  If the offense is committed with the intent to sell, transfer or use the individually identifiable health information for commercial advantage, the penalty could be up to $250,000 and 10 years imprisonment.  If claims are brought against companies, like IMS Health, the companies will surely argue they are not covered entities subject to the penalties under HIPAA; however, this does not prevent civil lawsuits against them.
What will happen if a breach occurs due to patient re-identification? Most likely, the current healthcare environment where many companies are acting under corporate integrity agreements or deferred prosecution agreements, promotes reporting, if not out of altruistic purpose at least a compliance purpose. With this said, once reported to both the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Civil Rights, as well as, in most states, the Secretary of state, privacy and confidentiality laws require notification to be provided to the patient that has been re-identified. This patient whose privacy rights have been infringed can then bring an individual civil claim against the organization responsible for the disclosure of their health information as well as the collateral damages caused by the unauthorized disclosure. Now, what company today wants to get involved with this type of bad publicity?
In conclusion, just because the possibility exists that a patient can be re-identified with data mining practices, does not mean that our current environment will foster such. The nine Justices of the Supreme Court need to be more concerned with the First Amendment and the commercial speech implications of their ruling, rather than amici curiae briefs supporting public policy positions based on unwarranted fears of patient information disclosure.
I therefore urge you to put yourself in the role of your favorite Justice and consider if you should be more concerned that a company is going to buy your prescription records and try to determine that you took amoxicillin for a sinus infection when you were five years old, or if that company would rather purchase all the information you posted on Facebook ® or other social networking sites, including all the locations you have checked in. Which do you think is more useful to market its products? It is with this mindset that you must consider if the regulation directly advances the governmental interest "in protecting the public health of Vermonters, ... the privacy of prescribers and prescribing information" and is no more extensive than necessary to serve that interest. 
 Petition for Writ of Certiorari, Sorrel v. IMS Health, Inc., 131 S. Ct. 857, No. 10-779, Dec. 13, 2010.
 Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 18, § 4631 (2010).
 See Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm'n of N.Y., 447 U.S. 557 (1980).
 Brief of Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) et. al. as Amici curiae supporting Petitioners, Sorrel v. IMS Health, Inc., 131 S. Ct. 857, (2011) (No. 10-779), 24-9, available at, http://www.atg.state.vt.us/assets/files/10-779%20EPIC%20amicus%20Sorrell.pdf; Latanya Sweeney, Simple Demographics Often Identify People Uniquely (Carnegie Mellon University, Data Privacy Working Paper No. 3, 2000), available at, http://dataprivacylab.org/projects/identifiability/paper1.pdf.
 Privacy Rule of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), Pub. L. No. 104-191 (1996), 45 C.F.R. §§ 164.312(e)(2)(ii), 164.514(b)(2)(i) (2010).
 42 U.S.C. § 1320d-6(a)(1)-(3).
 Id. § 1320d-6(b).
 Brief of Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) et. al. as Amici curiae supporting petitioners, Sorrel, 131 S. Ct. 857, (No. 10-779).
 See Vt. Acts & Resolves No. 80, § 17 (2007) (Confidentiality of Prescription Information); Vt. Acts & Resolves No. 89, § 3 (2008) (amending Act 80).
Newly compiled data on payments to physicians from pharmaceutical companies has kindled mainstream media conversation on the ethics of such practices. NPR station WNYC ran this feature, showing the top physician earners in New York, and the radio piece, “Physicians on Pharma’s Payroll.” You can hear the radio piece immediately below. It is interesting in that in addition to giving background, the piece also features interviews of physicians on the receiving end of those payments. One of those doctors describes the process of recruitment– wherein Pharma reps track doctors’ prescription records to see who is using their wares, and then approaching those doctors to see if they’d be interested in being paid presenters– or educators– depending I suppose upon your frame of reference.
Seton Hall University Interim Vice Provost, Law Professor and regular contributor to HRW, Kathleen M. Boozang, appeared in the Star Ledger regarding the ramifications of Pharma payments totaling millions of dollars to physicians in New Jersey. The article was prompted by a Pro Publica database which has compiled information from court documents detailing payments by six pharmaceutical companies to physicians, as well as the voluntary disclosure of two quarters of such payment information by Merck. The database tracks these payments for the period between January, 2009 and June 2010; it is sortable by state and amount.
Within the above named limitations, seven New Jersey doctors received more than $100,000 during the timeframe shown, from the pharmaceutical companies named.
In addition, The Ledger reports:
Overall, seven pharmaceutical companies wrote 1,215 checks totaling $8.3 million to doctors in New Jersey, the 10th highest total in the nation, according to ProPublica.
Doctors nationwide earned $258.7 million for speaking and consulting, according to information culled from court documents involving six companies and records from Whitehouse Station-based Merck, which voluntarily disclosed two quarters of payment information. And that’s just a taste of the $1.2 billion doctors earn on the speaking circuit annually, according to a 2008 article in the Journal of the American Medical Association….
Kathleen M. Boozang, law professor at Seton Hall University’s Center for Health & Pharmaceutical Law and Policy, said new requirements to publicly disclose how much doctors are paid by drug companies aren’t enough to protect patients, noting many won’t look up their doctor on databases.
Boozang said while doctors may be in the best position to teach each other how to make decisions about which drugs or devices should be used, drug companies shouldn’t be paying them.
The Center last year issued a report calling for an end to “commercial support for continuing medical education,” suggesting medical schools and physician associations should take over the role of educating doctors. “We have blurred the line between promotion and education,” Boozang said. “It shouldn’t be the obligation of patients to protect themselves from conflicts of interest.”