Can FDA’s Drug Shortage Task Force Devise New Solutions to an Old Problem?

August 6, 2018By Jennifer M. Thomas

Last month, FDA announced the creation of a new Drug Shortage Task Force, intended to address continuing shortages of medically necessary drug products. The Task Force expands FDA’s existing group focused on drug shortages and, according to Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, will “delve more deeply into the reasons why some shortages remain a persistent challenge.” Indeed, drug shortages have been a critical issue for years, yet some shortages linger despite FDA’s regulatory focus and the serious impacts on healthcare.  It is unclear whether the new Drug Shortage Task Force will uncover any new causes of shortages, as these have been the subject of considerable investigation and scholarship already – a more important goal is the Task Force’s aim of seeking new solutions to address those causes.

The Agency’s recent announcement came on the heels of its Annual Drug Shortages Report to Congress, which reported 39 new drug shortages in 2017. It also responds to a June 15, 2018 letter from a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators requesting FDA to:

[D]evelop a report and recommendations to Congress regarding the root causes of drug shortages and the authorities FDA and other agencies need to address these causes and ensure that appropriate supplies of essential medications are always available.

In comments discussing the creation of the Drug Shortage Task Force, Commissioner Gottlieb implied that new strategies may be in the works relating to federal reimbursement policies, which would attempt to address the economics that often contribute to or perpetuate drug shortages. Namely, Commissioner Gottlieb said that FDA, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, would be investigating how they could adjust reimbursement policies to increase investment in manufacturing for certain drugs prone to shortage.

Even before its recent announcements on the establishment of the Drug Shortage Task Force, FDA had renewed its focus on manufacturing quality metrics programs, announcing a Quality Metrics Feedback Program after a lengthy hiatus. One of the primary goals of quality metrics programs is to predict and prevent supply disruptions that can cause drug shortages.  However, as we noted earlier this year, the Agency’s most recent guidance on such programs seemed to take a step back from the goal of requiring drug manufacturers to establish a quality metrics program.  The Feedback Program seeks information from applicants and manufacturers who have voluntarily implemented quality metrics programs.  Industry initially objected to a mandatory quality metrics requirement as overly burdensome, at least as proposed by the Agency in 2015, and the Agency’s current statutory authority to implement such a requirement is ambiguous. The Senators’ recent bipartisan request, specifically seeking information on “authorities FDA and other federal agencies need” may encourage FDA to seek a legislative fix to the latter problem, at least.

Of course, FDA cannot prevent or resolve every problem that leads to a critical drug shortage – at least not within its current statutory authority. CDER Deputy Director for Regulatory Affairs, Dr. Douglas Throckmorton, made that clear in his recent detailed description of three ongoing drug shortages. We would welcome the thoughts of our readers as to the feasibility of FDA’s current ideas to combat critical drug shortages, and any new strategies to address shortages that have not been discussed here.