Biosimilars and the U.S. Supreme Court: FDA Program Could Be Nullified

The U.S. Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) (also known as ObamaCare) no later than early July. One of the possible results is nullification of the entire Act, although FDA Matters thinks this is the least likely outcome.

Nonetheless, the U.S. biosimilars law—passed as a separate section of ACA—could be rendered void if the Supreme Court overturns the entire ACA. Where would that leave FDA? What about those companies that have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to be part of the emerging U.S. biosimilars marketplace?

Controversy over The Affordable Care Act. The ACA, passed in March 2010, creates a comprehensive national approach to the problems of access and affordability of health care.  While not a pure “national health insurance” program that would be recognizable in most of the world, it is more far-reaching than any prior U.S. health legislation since the creation of Medicare (for the over-65 population) and Medicaid (a federal-state program for the poor) in the mid-1960’s. Numerous cost-containment provisions are also included in the ACA.

The ACA nearly didn’t pass Congress at all….and heated opposition has not lessened since its passage. A number of lawsuits have attacked the constitutionality of the law—with the leading case being led by the attorneys general of about 20 states. The US Supreme Court listened to oral arguments earlier this year and will decide the case before it adjourns in early July.

Biosimilars at Risk.   The Supreme Court may uphold the entire law as constitutional. Or they might decide only specific parts of the law are unconstitutional, none of which relate to biosimilars. In either scenario, FDA will proceed with its current plans to implement the biosimilars law.

However, the Supreme Court might decide that a constitutional problem with one part of the law (e.g. mandating that individuals buy health insurance) is so far-reaching that the entire law is unconstitutional. In this last situation, FDA might be stripped of its authority to implement the biosimilars program enacted into law as part of ACA.

Little Precedent on What Comes Next. The Supreme Court rarely rules that Congressional actions are unconstitutional. When it does so, the Court usually looks for the narrowest Constitutional grounds possible—trying to preserve as much of the legislation as it can. This makes it most likely that biosimilars will survive the Court’s review. It also means there is little precedent as to what would happen to the biosimilars program if the ACA is invalidated in its entirety.

One possibility is that FDA has innate authority to create and regulate a category of biosimilar drugs and does not need a legislative grant of authority.  This was discussed when Congress was first considering biosimilars legislation seriously in 2007 and 2008. At the time, FDA wisely deferred on the question, stating that it wanted Congressional guidance (meaning legislation).

Should the law be overturned, the “innate authority” question might be re-raised, allowing FDA to continue with little or no change in its plan. The agency might even argue that Congress has given the agency guidance—treating the language of the 2010 law as a directive rather than a mandate.*

There is no hint as to whether FDA is thinking along these lines. When I asked FDA, I was told: we are confident that the Affordable Care Act is constitutional.

Failing a decision by FDA that it has the innate authority to approve biosimilars, it would fall to Congress to find a way to restore the program by legislation.  According to the trade publication,FDA Week, biosimilars’ leader, Hospira, is gearing up to pursue a legislative re-enactment should the Supreme Court overturn the biosimilars program. The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) and Congress would also want to assure there is a biosimilars pathway.**

The problem: legislative re-enactment might not be so easy. While Congress is generally happy with the current biosimilars law, it was the product of a series of compromises and political maneuvering that left winners and losers. Merely re-adopting current law might prove surprisingly difficult.

Meantime, we all await the Supreme Court’s decision. And it’s safe to say that no one in the bio-pharma community is looking forward to the possibility of a new fight over biosimilars.

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