Zogenix Sues Massachusetts Over Order Banning ZOHYDRO ER; Alleges Ban is Unconstitutional

April 8, 2014

By Kurt R. Karst –    

Shortly after Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick issued a press release on March 27, 2014 announcing a Declaration of Emergency and that the Governor had directed the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (“DPH”) and its Commissioner, Cheryl Bartlett, RN, to take several actions to combat opioid overdose, including granting DPH “emergency powers” to, among other things, ban the prescribing and dispensing of ZOHYDRO ER (hydrocodone bitartrate) Extended-release Capsules, rumors began to swirl that the manufacturer of the drug, Zogenix, Inc. (“Zogenix”), would take legal action.  Those rumors intensified when later on March 27, 2014 the DPH Commissioner Bartlett and the Public Health Council approved an Emergency Order stating: “No registered individual practitioner shall prescribe or order, and no one shall dispense or administer any hydrocodone bitartrate product in hydrocodone-only extended-release formulation until the Commissioner has determined that adequate measures are in place to safeguard against the potential for diversion, overdose and abuse.” 

Less than two weeks after Governor Patrick’s announcement, and now that other states are considering (or taking) similar action (e.g., Vermont recently issued an emergency rule that will reportedly make it more difficult for physicians to prescribe the drug within state limits), Zogenix is taking a stand.  Earlier this week, Zogenix filed a Complaint and a Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts alleging that the Commonwealth’s ban on ZOHYDRO ER is unconstitutional because the ban violates the Supremacy Clause, the dormant Commerce Clause, and the federal Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution:

To put it in plain terms: the Order banning Zohydro™ ER is unconstitutional.

To begin with, it is preempted by federal law.  FDA, not Governor Patrick and not the State DPH, has the authority to approve new drugs, to determine the formulations that are safe and effective for use, and to authorize their introduction into the interstate market.  And after extensive consideration, FDA approved Zohydro™ ER in its current formulation, finding it safe and effective for use in treating patients with chronic pain for whom their physicians conclude Zohydro™ ER is indicated.  Neither Governor Patrick nor the state DPH has the authority or the ability to countermand that determination and declare Zohydro™ ER unsafe in its current formulation.  The Order also runs afoul of the dormant Commerce Clause, which prohibits a state from taking a regulatory action that has impact outside its borders, or if which replicated would result in the effective dismantlement of a national regulatory scheme.  And it violates the federal Contracts Clause, because the Order undoes private contracts between Zogenix and other contracting parties for services in Massachusetts, all without sufficient justification. 

FDA approved ZOHYDRO ER on October 25, 2013 under NDA No. 202880 after an extended review cycle for the management of pain severe enough to require daily, around-the-clock, long-term opioid treatment and for which alternative treatment options are inadequate.  ZOHYDRO ER is manufactured without an abuse-deterrent formulation, and that fact has made the approval controversial.  Indeed, several members of Congress have sent letters to FDA protesting the approval, and legislation has been introduced to withdraw the NDA approval (S. 2134 and H.R. 4241).  Nevertheless, ZOHYDRO ER remains an approved medication.  And as Zogenix points out in its lawsuit:

In rendering a considered decision that the benefits of Zohydro™ ER outweighed the drug’s potential risks, the FDA satisfied Congress’s dual mandate of promoting and protecting public health by classifying Zohydro™ ER as “safe and effective,” consistent with its obligations under 21 U.S.C. § 393(b)(2)(B).  That determination reflects the FDA’s expert conclusion that public access to the drug “promote[s]” the public health.

Thus, Zogenix argues that the Commonwealth’s ban on ZOHYDRO ER:

stands as an impermissible obstacle, in two ways, to the FDA’s mandate to make particularized drug approvals for the protection and promotion of the public health.  First, . . . state drug prohibition decisions contrary to those of the FDA – such as the Massachusetts ban here – would harmfully undermine the authoritative character of federal safety decisions designed to have national effect. . . .  Second, the Massachusetts order plainly conflicts with the scientific predicates supporting the FDA’s approval of the same drug Massachusetts wants banned – and thus with Congress’ objective to promote public health by facilitating access to important treatments.

Zogenix is seeking, among other things, declaratory and injunctive relief.  Specifically, Zogenix seeks a declaration that Governor Patrick’s and DPH Commissioner Bartlett’s conduct in effectuating a ban on ZOHYDRO ER violates the U.S. Constitution, and final order enjoining Massachusetts from implementing or enforcing the Declaration of Emergency, the Emergency Order (or any other action banning the prescription, ordering, dispensing, and administration of ZOHYDRO ER), or an order vacating those actions.  A hearing was held on April 8th regarding Zogenix's Motion for Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction.  Judge Rya W. Zobel granted a continuance to allow the parties some additional time.  A hearing is now scheduled for April 14th at 9:00 AM.

Massachusetts’ action banning ZOHYDRO ER, and Zogenix’s response to that action, seems to be a case of first impression.  We’re not aware of another lawsuit like it.  A decision in favor of the Commonwealth could set the stage for future state action against particular drug products, and could undermine FDA’s drug approval authority.  During the April 8th hearing, however, Judge Zobel reportedly indicated that she will likely strike down the ban, presumably on preemption grounds.