The State of the FDA—February 2013

FDA is the only federal agency that touches the lives of every American several times every day. Despite this, FDA will probably not be mentioned when President Obama delivers his State of the Union (SOTU) address to Congress on February 12.

Instead, FDA Matters provides its third annual “State of the FDA.” As reflected in last week’s column, I think that FDA did well in 2012. And 2013 is very promising. Potential funding cutbacks are the primary impediment to future successes.

Strengths. Once again, FDA’s most important strength is the dedication of the agency’s staff.   Last year, I viewed staff’s efforts as invisible and largely unappreciated. I believe that more recognition is being given to the staff—driven by a banner year for drug approvals, progress on implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), and the narrowing of the FDA-industry chasm on medical devices.

Another key strength is a growing self-confidence within the agency that it can solve problems and not just tread water to survive. Over the years, FDA has often spent extended periods in a bunker posture—harassed, defensive, waiting to be forced to act, speaking too softly for fear of unleashing criticism.

Over the last year or so, there appear to be many more instances where the agency has taken the initiative. To be sure, they have talked to stakeholders and checked in with experts first, but then they have acted by making an announcement, releasing guidelines, creating new policies or intervening to solve a problem.

Both of these strengths have been heightened by continuity of leadership. In May, Commissioner Hamburg will have held the job for four years, the longest tenure of a commissioner since the mid-1990’s. It also feels like there have been fewer top-level personnel changes. In the past, constant changes have undercut achievement and sapped morale and self-confidence.

Weaknesses. Congress has given FDA an ever larger role without providing the funds to do the job. As a result, and despite the agency’s best efforts, important initiatives and activities are not getting the resources they need. Inadequate funding is the most pressing weakness of FDA.

There are really three parts to the problem:

  • three new laws over the last three years need to be implemented: food safety (FSMA), biosimilars (BPCIA) and user fee amendments (FDASIA).
  • Congressional pressure to do more in complex, expensive areas, such as medical innovation, safety, medical countermeasures, track and trace/counterfeit products, drug shortages and compounding.
  • FDA’s job is getting bigger, tougher and more resource-needy each year independent of whether Congress gives them new responsibilities. This emanates from greater scientific complexity, industry globalization, and increased workload (meetings, NDA’s, etc).

As will be discussed further under “threats,” there is a strong potential for cuts in funding that would take FDA far below even the current inadequate level.

Opportunities. Dr. Hamburg has made it a priority to improve the agency’s scientific bench strength—better credentials, better training and better tools. The next step—still very much a work in progress—is to integrate patients and human concerns into FDA decisionmaking.

The agency understands the importance of this opportunity, but underestimates the tension between patient viewpoints and the scientific process. The task is more nuanced than current efforts suggest….and the risk is that patient-input becomes a box that gets checked, rather than a meaningful improvement to the agency’s science-based decisionmaking.

In a different vein, FSMA is a well-conceived solution to achieving a safe food supply in the 21st century. The opportunity is enormous, the blueprint largely drawn, and only the inadequacy of funding a substantial barrier to success. I don’t know if the American people will ever properly appreciate the effort required by FSMA or the value its implementation adds to protecting the food supply. Without that public feedback and support, the challenge for FDA will be to continue to see FSMA as the transformative opportunity it is.

Threats. The largest threat to FDA is the potential for immediate and long-term cuts to the resources available to the agency. On March 1, FDA may lose more than 5% of its current-year funding. Even if that cut is averted, funding for domestic discretionary programs is going to be under pressure for the next decade.

The increasing reliance of user fees for agency funding is also a threat. Including tobacco and the new generic drug user fees, the FDA is now 40% funded by industry. Those fees are put to good use and are not, by themselves, a problem. Rather, American taxpayers need to preserve–if not actually increase–their stake in funding FDA. There are philosophic reasons for this (the integrity of the agency) and practical ones (a large part of FDA’s mission cannot appropriately be funded by industry).

Conclusion. FDA’s strengths and opportunities are immediate and powerful…perhaps more so than in many years. The challenge is to preserve and expand the funding, particularly taxpayer funding, to support the agency. Trying to “do FDA on the cheap” is both a weakness and a threat to the agency and the American people.

republished and adapted with permission from FDA Matters

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