PhRMA Submits Amicus Brief on First Amendment Issues

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America recently submitted an amicus brief urging a federal court to dismiss a whistleblower's False Claims Act suit because the off-label claims in the case violate the defendants' free speech rights. See U.S. ex rel. Solis v. Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. et al., No. 2:09-cv-03010 (E.D. Cal. Brief August 15, 2014). The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (“PhRMA”) is a voluntary, nonprofit association representing the nation’s leading research-based pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

Readers know that physicians may lawfully prescribe FDA-approved drugs to treat any condition or disease, including unapproved uses, based on their independent medical judgment. See Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs’ Legal Comm., 531 U.S. 341, 350 (2001). Indeed, many unapproved uses are integral to the practice of medicine, and reflect the standard of patient care. E.g., Joseph W. Cranston et al., Report of the Council on Scientific Affairs: Unlabeled Indications of Food and Drug Administration-Approved Drugs, 32 Drug Info. J. 1049, 1050 (1998). The case here involved a qui tam False Claims Act (FCA) suit against defendants. This case raises serious First Amendment concerns, said amicus, because relator’s and the United States’ construction of the FCA would impose liability on manufacturers for engaging in truthful speech about “off-label” uses of their drugs, i.e., particular uses of an FDA-approved medication that the FDA has not yet approved. The First Amendment unquestionably protects such truthful and non-misleading speech. E.g., Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc., 131 S. Ct. 2653, 2659 (2011).  The prevalence of unapproved—but fully legal—uses of many FDA-approved prescription medicines to treat patients makes it critical that healthcare professionals have access to accurate, comprehensive, and current information about such uses. 

Notably, pointed out amicus, neither relator nor the government alleged that the speech at issue here—relaying reprinted articles about unapproved uses of the drug Integrilin from peer-reviewed journals, and summarizing the results of clinical trials—was false or misleading. Relator and the United States did not even agree on why the FCA proscribes this speech, or how this speech somehow causes others to submit false claims. But their interpretations of the FCA shared a critical flaw according to the Brief: both threaten core First Amendment rights and should be rejected under principles of constitutional avoidance. See Edward J. DeBartolo Corp. v. Fla. Gulf Coast Bldg. & Const. Trades Council, 485 U.S. 568, 575 (1988).

These constitutional concerns seem well-founded: “Speech in aid of pharmaceutical marketing . . . is a form of expression protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.” Sorrell, 131 S. Ct. at 2659. Interpreting the FDCA to punish manufacturers for truthfully speaking about unapproved uses impermissibly restricts speech based on its content and the identity of the speaker, and thus triggers heightened scrutiny. These First Amendment concerns apply with particular force to the speech that relator targeted here. The Complaint alleged that the manufacturer merely distributed reprints of medical studies published in reputable independent journals like Cardiology, the American Heart Journal, and the American Journal of Cardiology, and sent letters accurately relaying summaries of clinical trials.  There was no question that the authors of the reprints, the studies’ investigators, physicians, or anyone other than manufacturers can speak about the reprints and trial results as much as they wish. Indeed, everyone but manufacturers apparently can talk to physicians about prescribing Integrilin for unapproved uses without penalty. Relator even conceded that the manufacturer can distribute reprints promoting unapproved uses so long as physicians request such information.

Physicians who received the reprints or other information from the manufacturer in this case received precisely the type of educational information that a trained physician would wish to receive about his patients. Physicians were not only free to disregard these reprints; their Hippocratic Oath obligated them to use their own, independent medical judgment as to whether a given prescription was warranted. And after those physicians prescribed the FDA-approved drug for an unapproved use, hospitals then made additional, independent determinations whether the prescriptions were reimbursable. Only after that did hospitals submit claims to the government.

A good summary of the issues from defense perspective.