(MASS TORT NEXUS MEDIA) On November 26, 2018 the FDA announced an overhaul of the 510(k) system that is meant to prompt manufacturers to base new products on technologies that are 10 years old or less. Almost 20% of the products currently cleared by the system were based on devices older than 10 years. For consumer safety, the FDA is considering whether to publicize the manufacturers and their devices that are based on older products.
The FDA is supposed to protect the interests of the general public and ensure that new devices, as well as existing ones are functioning as designed. More often that is not the case, as the FDA either fails to review medical device failures or simply ignores them.
Pharmaceutical companies and medical device makers, collectively Big Pharma, spend far more than any other industry to influence politicians. Big Pharma has poured close to $2.5 billion into lobbying and funding members of Congress over the past decade.
Hundreds of millions of dollars flow to lobbyists and politicians on Capitol Hill each year to shape laws and policies that keep drug company profits growing. The pharmaceutical industry, which has about two lobbyists for every member of Congress, spent $152 million on influencing legislation in 2016, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Drug companies also contributed more than $20m directly to political campaigns last year. About 60% went to Republicans. Paul Ryan, the former speaker of the House of Representatives was the single largest beneficiary, with donations from the industry totaling $228,670.
Over the past decade, manufacturers have also paid out at least $1.6 billion to settle charges of regulatory violations, including corruption and fraud, around the world, according to the consortium, which published its report findings on November 26, 2018.
The new FDA rule, which had been sought by medical device manufacturers, opens the door for a decrease in reported information for nearly 9 out of 10 device categories, a recent review found. It could allow manufacturers to submit quarterly summarized reports for similar incidents, rather than individual reports every time malfunctions occur, meaning there will be much less detail about individual cases.
As part of the worldwide scrutiny of medical devices and at times, the affiliated dangers, a massive investigation known as “The Implant Files” was undertaken by a group of journalists around the world. Led by editors and reporters from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, it took a year to plan and another year to complete
ICIJ partnered with more than 250 journalists in 36 countries to examine how devices are tested, approved, marketed and monitored. This included an analysis of more than 8 million device-related health records, including death and injury reports and recalls.
The Implant Files review encompassed more than 1.7 million injuries and nearly 83,000 deaths suspected of being linked to medical devices over 10 years, and reported to the U.S. alone.
Like the rest of Big Pharma, the medical device manufacturers have created an intricate web of corporate and political influence including at the Federal Drug Administration, where the FDA is charged with oversight of medical devices.
The new rule is one of several regulatory changes favoring the medical device industry that have been proposed and enacted since the beginning of the Trump administration. They are part of a decades-long campaign to decrease U.S. regulation of the pharmaceutical and medical device industry, which is a massive global business that has existed for years with minimal international scrutiny.
A recent analysis of the 10 largest publicly traded medical device companies in the U.S. found that since the start of the Trump administration, the companies have spent more than $36.5 million on efforts to influence rules and legislation. Some of these companies manufacture a variety of medical products, including pharmaceuticals and lab equipment, but four of the 10 exclusively manufacture devices and lobbying disclosures for all 10 emphasize efforts to influence policy around devices.
BUYING A PRESENCE IN WASHINGTON
The medical device industry was worth $405 billion worldwide in 2017, according to an Accenture market analysis. Despite its size, the medical device industry has only a patchwork of international oversight, even though when things go wrong with a device, the consequences can be serious.
But the single largest medical device market in the world is the U.S., worth an estimated $156 billion in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. As the medical device market has boomed over the past several decades, the industry has built a sizable presence in Washington, D.C.
Many medical device companies have built sophisticated lobbying arms, often employing their own team of lobbyists in addition to hiring outside firms for specific issues. Several of the largest companies used between 15 and 50 lobbyists in 2017 alone, an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) found.
There are also two main trade groups for the industry to which device makers contribute membership fees to, both of which pack a hefty lobbying punch on their own. Since the start of 2017, the Advanced Medical Technology Association (AdvaMed), the older and larger group, has spent more than $6 million and the Medical Device Manufacturers Association (MDMA) has spent nearly $2.6 million. The groups’ policy goals echo those that individual companies list on their lobbying disclosures, among them: decreasing taxes on devices, increasing insurance coverage and reimbursement and the FDA’s approval process for bringing a device to market.
The medical device lobbying effort is vast, with lobbyists seeking to be heard on Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement codes, device purchasing policies at the Veterans Administration, even cybersecurity and trade issues. Companies regularly lobby Congress and target agencies and offices across the executive branches in D.C., from the FDA to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid and the National Security Council.
Altogether, the industry has spent more than $20 million per year for the past five years lobbying the federal government, according to an analysis of campaign finance and lobbying data from CRP.
With the change in administration in 2017, that spending increased to more than $26 million, $2.2 million more than its highest level in any of the previous four years. Based on disclosures from the first three quarters of the year, medical device lobbying in 2018 is on pace to exceed 2017 levels.
An industry spokesperson noted that the U.S. pharmaceutical industry spends more heavily on lobbying than the device industry. Big Pharma-pharmaceuticals, which was worth more than $453 billion in the U.S. in 2017, spent more than $171 million the same year, more than six times as much as the device industry, according to a Statista market analysis.
The lobbying resources of the device industry far outweigh those of consumer and patient advocates, which are often on the other side of regulatory debates on Capitol Hill.
Very few advocacy groups spend time lobbying on devices, said Dr. Diana Zuckerman, a former HHS official under Obama and president of the National Center for Health Research, a nonprofit advocacy organization based in Washington.
“When we’ve talked to congressional staff about this,” she said, “they say things like, ‘Well, we’re getting calls every day, all day long from various device companies or their lawyers,’ and the nonprofits are basically going to the Hill for visits a few hours a year.”
Zuckerman’s group is one of about a half dozen to lobby on devices over the past few years. Each of the largest spends no more than a few-hundred-thousand dollars annually to lobby on devices and all other consumer issues, according to their federal lobbying disclosures.
Trial lawyer groups, which the device industry spokesperson noted often sue device makers, also spent less than one third of what the device industry did in 2017, a CRP analysis found.
Three companies that spent the most on lobbying in the past five years were ask about their lobbying efforts. Baxter International and Abbott Laboratories did not comment. Medtronic said, “Despite the company nearly doubling in size, our lobbying-related efforts over the last 10 years have remained relatively stable.”
Previously, Abbott, Medtronic and a half-dozen other international device makers told the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists that they conduct business with the highest ethical standards, adhere to all laws and have rigorous programs to prevent employee misconduct.
In a statement, Mark Leahey, president of MDMA, said, “As millions of Americans benefit daily from the more than 190,000 different medical devices available and in use in the United States, our members continue to work with patient groups and policy makers to advance policies that promote improved access for patients and providers. This dynamic innovation ecosystem remains committed to developing the cures and therapies of tomorrow, while reducing adverse events and learning from ongoing research and each patient’s experience.”
OBAMA – TRUMP COMPARISON
During its eight-year tenure, the Obama administration permitted some deregulation but also instituted the first FDA product ban since the 1980s.
Beginning in 2014, warning letters to industry began to drop steeply and approval of new devices to rise. By 2017, the number of FDA warning letters to device manufacturers about product safety had dropped to nearly 80 percent less than those issued in 2010, while approval numbers for new devices were more than three times as high as at the beginning of the decade. The FDA says the decrease in warning letters is due to a more interactive approach to working with violative companies, and the uptick in approvals is due to an increase in staffing and efficiency.
Under Obama, some FDA regulators responsible for overseeing the device industry pushed for deregulation. Administrators largely kept it in check, said Peter Lurie, an FDA associate commissioner during the Obama administration.
“It was accompanied by very heavy lobbying on Capitol Hill as well,” said Lurie. Priorities included faster device approval times and decreasing taxes.
During Obama’s final year in office, the FDA banned its first device in more than 30 years, a type of surgical glove and proposed a ban on a home shock collar for behavior modification. That ban is still pending.
The industry successfully pushed for changes in a proposed regulation on unique device identifiers, the identification codes for individual devices, similar to automotive vehicle identification numbers, and won the suspension of a tax on medical devices created to help fund the Affordable Care Act.
“Now with the advent of the Trump administration,” said Lurie, “the deregulatory gloves are off and we’re seeing a number of the device industry’s most desired objectives come to fruition.”
President Trump vowed to cut regulations across the government by 75 percent when he came into office.
In 2002, Congress instituted a program in which the device industry pays “user fees” to fund the FDA office that oversees it, amounts which are agreed upon in negotiations between industry and the regulator every five years. In its first year, the fees provided 10 percent of funding for the device center, but by 2018, the fees brought in more than $153 million, providing more than 35 percent of the center’s budget.
“It’s carefully negotiated for weeks and months at a time,” said Jack Mitchell, former director of Special Investigations for the FDA. “And there’s a laundry list of things that the industry gets FDA to agree to and that they’re paying for.”
If the most recent agreement, negotiated in 2017, had not gone through by the deadline, the agency would have legally been required to temporarily layoff at least one third of its device center staff. The final agreement included a decrease in approval time for certain devices.
“We do not believe user fee funding has influenced our decision making,” the FDA said in a statement, noting that other parts of the FDA are also funded by user fees.
The agency also noted that it held meetings with patient stakeholders in addition to industry when negotiating the user fee agreement, saying, “Patients are a critical part of the user fee process.”
The FDA emphasized that it does not always agree with the industry, citing as examples its support of legislation that makers of reusable devices provide instruction on how to prevent bacterial contamination, and including device identifier codes in insurance claims forms.
MAKING FDA APPROVAL EASIER FOR BIG PHARMA
The changes to how adverse events are reported was seen as an overwhelming industry success.
The FDA database in which surgical complications are entered is known as the Manufacturer and User Facility Device Experience Database (MAUDE), which includes more than 750,000 incidents per year. The adverse events range from minor malfunctions to patient deaths linked to products being used around the world.
Despite its size, it’s widely accepted that the database is only a rather limited record of the full scale of medical device complications and adverse events.
The rule went into effect in August. The FDA said in a statement in November that though the reports are valuable, they were never meant to be sole source for determining if a device is causing harm.
“This type of reporting system has notable limitations,” said the FDA, “including the potential submission of incomplete, inaccurate, untimely, unverified, or biased data.”
Patients are able to report adverse events to the database themselves, but few know to do so. Companies are required to report the events, once they are notified., which they don’t always do. The FDA said thirty-three percent (33%) of all FDA warning letters to device makers were to companies that failed to meet rules for reporting complications with devices.
The more companies that fail to file properly, the less the database accurately reflects what is happening to patients with devices.
Under the rule change, companies could be allowed to submit quarterly summarized reports for similar incidents, rather than individual reports each time malfunctions occur. Previously, qualified manufacturers could submit summarized reports if they filed a request with the agency. Now they can do so without making a request.
“[The database] is the way we’ve learned about some very serious health issues,” said Rita Redberg, a cardiologist at the University of San Francisco who studies adverse events like Hershey’s. “It’s the most widespread and publicly available database for adverse events, which is extremely important for patient safety.”
In a public comment in support of the rule change, AdvaMed called the change a “commonsense approach” that will reduce the volume of reports manufacturers need to submit to the FDA and streamline the information the FDA receives about malfunctions.
“This process will actually make it easier for third parties to assess the malfunction data in [the database],” said Greg Crist, a spokesperson for AdvaMed. “Comparing the old alternative summary reporting program to this new initiative is comparing apples to oranges.”
In response to public comments that critical report information would be lost with the change in reporting, the FDA wrote in the published rule that, “We do not believe there will be an adverse impact on the content of information provided to FDA.”
In a statement, the agency said the new program “streamlines the process for reporting of device malfunctions and allows us to more efficiently detect potential safety issues and identify trends. It also frees up resources to better focus on addressing the highest risks.”
But Redberg, is worried that the new rule change will make searching an already unwieldy database more difficult, decreasing the ability of researchers and the public to search for misfiled reports or see accurate numbers of adverse events.
“It makes things easier for industry, it makes things worse for patients,” she said. “I really think it’s a public health crisis. We have more and more devices in use, and for many of them we really have no idea how safe they are because we don’t have accurate reporting.”
How these changes are affecting medical care in the US, and more importantly the publics right to be informed of adverse events and problems with medical devices, their approval process and who’s lobbying who and for what in the FDA should be open and transparent.
(Certain images and text excerpts in this article were reprinted from third party media sources)
WHY THE MOTTO OF “PROFITS BEFORE PATIENTS” IS STILL THE BANNER:
HERE’S A FULL REPORT
By Mark A. York (November 26, 2018)
(MASS TORT NEXUS MEDIA) For years, medical device companies have stated that the products they are developing and placing into the marketplace are safe and helping patients in the USA and worldwide. That is often not the case and people around the world are suffering.
Medical device makers and compensated doctors have touted FDA approved implants and other devices as the surgical cure for millions of patients suffering from a wide range of pain disorders, making them one of the fastest-growing products in the $400 billion medical device industry. Companies and doctors aggressively push them as a safe antidote to the deadly opioid crisis in the U.S. and as a treatment for an aging population in need of chronic pain relief and many other afflictions.
Manufacturer headlines like these instill consumer confidence that medical devices are safe and effective. After all, they have the FDA’s stamp of approval, right? NO!
The reality is, the FDA seldom requires rigorous evidence that a device works well–and safely–before allowing it onto the market. Medical devices are the diverse array of non-drug products used to diagnosis and treat medical conditions, from bandages to MRI scanners to smartphone apps to artificial hips.
This low standard of evidence applies to even the highest risk devices such as those that are implanted in a person’s body. Surgical mesh, pacemakers and gastric weight loss balloons are just a few examples of devices that have had serious safety problems.
Devices are subject to weaker standards than drugs because they’re regulated under a different law. The Medical Device Amendments of 1976 was intended to encourage innovation while allowing for a range of review standards based on risk, according to legal expert Richard A. Merrill. An array of corporate lobbying has since prompted Congress to ease regulations and make it easier for devices to get the FDA’s approval.
In 2011, an Institute of Medicine panel recommended that the “flawed” system be replaced, because it does not actually establish safety and effectiveness. At the time the FDA said it disagreed with the group’s recommendations.
Defective devices cleared through this system have included hip replacements that failed prematurely, surgical mesh linked to pain and bleeding and a surgical instrument that inadvertently spread uterine cancer.
When makers of medical devices learn that one of their products has malfunctioned in a way that could kill or seriously injure people, they are required to file a report with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The reports are meant to alert regulators that patients may be in danger.
However, in the future, under a deal the FDA has negotiated with industry lobbyists, manufacturers could generally wait three months before reporting malfunctions, and they could report malfunctions in “summary” form, according to an FDA document.
This 2017 deal apparently means that the government and the public could receive less detailed and less timely warnings.
Jim Taft listened intently as his pain management doctor described a medical device that could change his life, it wouldn’t fix the nerve damage in his mangled right arm, but a spinal-cord stimulator would cloak his pain, making him “good as new.”
Taft’s stimulator failed soon after it was surgically implanted. After an operation to repair it, he said the device shocked him so many times that he couldn’t sleep and even fell down a flight of stairs. Today, the 45-year-old Taft is virtually paralyzed.
“I thought I would have a wonderful life,” Taft said. “But look at me.” Taft is just one of the thousands of patients who have been injured by an implanted medical device, almost always by a device that was made in the USA.
A recent global investigation has found that hundreds of thousands of unsafe medical devices have been implanted in patients around the world and device failures are considered very normal.
A recent worldwide investigation was carried out by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in coordination with the British Medical Journal and various media outlets including the Guardian newspaper and BBC Panorama.
The probe found that pacemakers, artificial knees, hips and rods to support the spinal cord are among the faulty devices that were implanted in patients and that failed. These unsafe medical devices have resulted in thousands of injuries and deaths and quite often patients are forced to undergo removal or revision surgeries.
The investigation found that many of the unsafe medical devices did not complete patient trials before their commercial launch, adding that some of the pacemakers were implanted when the manufacturers were aware of the problems, while some devices were approved on the basis of a regulatory nod secured in other countries.
Poor regulations across countries, lenient testing standards and lack of clarity allowed these faulty medical devices to reach the market.
In the UK alone, the regulators received 62,000 “adverse incident” reports associated with medical devices between 2015 and 2018. About 1,004 of such cases even resulted in the death of patients.
In the USA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been notified of 5.4 million ‘adverse events’ over the last ten years. Faulty devices were linked to approximately 1.7 million injuries and 83,000 deaths.
Even though these medical devices are made in the USA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had not, and still has not, deemed them good enough for Americans. The FDA has permitted sales overseas of unproven devices and products via an obscure FDA provision in which products are registered as an “export only” device, requiring far less FDA scrutiny than for devices that are sold domestically.
An example is PyroTITAN, by Intergra LifeSciences of New Jersey, among the biggest medical device companies in the world and maker of more than a dozen export-only devices with troubled track records identified as “export only” which is a U.S.-made implant for losing weight that instead led to numerous emergency surgeries, stents that could cut into arteries and heart valves sold in Spain and Italy that, according to the FDA, caused severe infections and may have caused a five-year-old child to die. These items were found by analyzing and comparing databases in 10 countries, and a lack of international standards for identifying devices means it is difficult to know how many other troubled devices exist.
For U.S. companies, exporting medical devices is big business, valued last year at more than $41 billion. Currently about 4,600 devices are registered with the FDA as “export only” devices. Several executives for medical device makers said registering the devices is faster, less expensive and has involved less oversight than getting them approved for sale inside the U.S. The troubled devices identified by NBC News have been sold around the world. The destinations range from the Netherlands to Namibia, Chile to Canada, Japan to Germany.
Recently, NBC probed export-only devices as part of the same global project organized by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a news organization notable for its work on the Panama Papers, to examine the medical device industry. More than 250 reporters in 36 countries worked on stories that began publishing Sunday.
Worldwide US Device Exports are Often Substandard
Zimmer Biomet is one of the big medical device companies named in the investigation. The company has previously had to discontinue sales of a metal-on-metal hip implant system which was cause to flesh-rotting via metallosis poisoning. The company seems to have maintained the tried and true Big Pharma mantra of “we do what the FDA requires, therefor we are excluded from accepting responsibility for defective medical products” which is often pushed as a coverall statement by medical device makers when they are under scrutiny.
“We adhere to strict regulatory standard, and work closely with the FDA and all applicable regulatory agencies in each of our regions as part of our commitment to operating a first-rate quality management system across our global manufacturing network.
Abbott has also come under scrutiny for its Nanostim pacemaker, which has received complaints about implant battery failures and parts of the device falling off inside patients. The company released the following statement: “In accordance with the European CE Mark approval process, the Nanostim leadless pacing system was approved based on strong performance and safety data.”
Medical device companies and doctors tout spinal-cord stimulators to treat patients suffering from a wide range of pain disorders. But an investigation by AP found the devices rank third in injury reports to the FDA in 10 years.
But the stimulators — devices that use electrical currents to block pain signals before they reach the brain — are more dangerous than many patients know, an Associated Press investigation found. They account for the third-highest number of medical device injury reports to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with more than 80,000 incidents flagged since 2008.
Patients report that they have been shocked or burned or have suffered spinal-cord nerve damage ranging from muscle weakness to paraplegia, FDA data shows. Among the 4,000 types of devices tracked by the FDA, only metal hip replacements and insulin pumps have logged more injury reports.
The FDA data contains more than 500 reports of people with spinal-cord stimulators who died but details are scant, making it difficult to determine if the deaths were related to the stimulator or implant surgery.
An animated look at the spinal cord stimulator, its benefits and potential problems. (AP Animation/Peter Hamlin)
Medical device manufacturers insist spinal-cord stimulators are safe — some 60,000 are implanted annually — and doctors who specialize in these surgeries say they have helped reduce pain for many of their patients.
Most of these devices have been approved by the FDA with little clinical testing and the agency’s data shows that spinal-cord stimulators have a disproportionately higher number of injuries compared to hip implants, which are far more plentiful.
The AP reported on spinal stimulators as part of a year long joint investigation of the global medical devices industry that included NBC, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and more than 50 other media partners around the world. Reporters collected and analyzed millions of medical records, recall notices and other product safety warnings, in addition to interviewing doctors, patients, researchers and company whistleblowers.
The media partners found that, across all types of medical devices, more than 1.7 million injuries and nearly 83,000 deaths were reported to the FDA over the last decade.
The investigation also found that the FDA — considered by other countries to be the gold standard in medical device oversight — puts people at risk by pushing devices through an abbreviated approval process, then responds slowly when it comes to forcing companies to correct sometimes life-threatening products.
Devices are rarely pulled from the market, even when major problems emerge, and the FDA does not disclose how many devices are implanted in the U.S. each year — critical information that could be used to calculate success and failure rates.
The FDA acknowledges its data has limitations, including mistakes, omissions and under-reporting that can make it difficult to determine whether a device directly caused an injury or death, but it rejects any suggestion of failed oversight.
“There are over 190,000 different devices on the U.S. market. We approve or clear about a dozen new or modified devices every single business day,” Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, the FDA’s medical device director said at an industry conference in May. “The few devices that get attention at any time in the press is fewer than the devices we may put on the market in a single business day. That to me doesn’t say that the system is failing. It’s remarkable that the system is working as it does.”
In response to reporters’ questions, the FDA said last week that it was taking new action to create “a more robust medical device safety net for patients through better data.” ″Unfortunately, the FDA cannot always know the full extent of the benefits and risks of a device before it reaches the market,” the agency said. In the last 50 years, the medical device industry has revolutionized treatment for some of the deadliest scourges of modern medicine, introducing devices to treat or diagnose heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Medical device companies have “invested countless resources — both capital and human — in developing leading-edge compliance programs,” said Janet Trunzo, head of technology and regulatory affairs for AdvaMed, the industry’s main trade association.
At the same time, medical device makers also have spent billions to try to influence regulators, hospitals and doctors.
In the United States, where drug and device manufacturers are required to disclose payments to physicians, the 10 largest medical device companies paid nearly $600 million to doctors or their hospitals last year to cover consulting fees, research, travel and entertainment expenses, according to an AP and ICIJ analysis of data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. This figure doesn’t include payments from device manufacturers like Johnson & Johnson and Allergan, which also sell other products.
On top of that, lobbying records show that the top four spinal-cord stimulator manufacturers have spent more than $22 million combined since 2017 to try to influence legislation benefiting their overall business, which includes other medical devices.
Some companies have been fined for bribing physicians, illegally promoting products for unapproved uses and paying for studies that proclaim the safety and effectiveness of their products, according to the joint investigation.
In a 2016 case, Olympus Corp. of the Americas, the largest U.S. distributor of endoscopes and related medical equipment, agreed to pay $623.2 million “to resolve criminal charges and civil claims relating to a scheme to pay kickbacks to doctors and hospitals,” according to the U.S. Justice Department. Olympus said that it “agreed to make various improvements to its compliance program.”
In a case the previous year involving spinal-cord stimulators, Medtronic,Inc. agreed to pay $2.8 million to settle Justice Department claims that the company had harmed patients and defrauded federal health care programs by providing physicians “powerful” financial inducements that turned them into “salesmen” for costly procedures. Medtronic denied wrongdoing. “As a matter of policy, Medtronic does not comment on specific litigation,” the company said in a statement. “We do stand behind the safety and efficacy of our Spinal Cord Stimulators and the strong benefits this technology provides to patients, many of whom have tried all other therapy options to no benefit.”
Some doctors enthusiastically promote spinal-cord stimulators without disclosing to patients they’ve received money from medical device manufacturers. Some experts say doctors are not legally required to disclose such payments, but they have an ethical obligation to do so. Sometimes the money goes to the doctors’ hospitals, and not directly to them.
As for Taft, he said he just wanted to get better, but he has lost hope. “This is my death sentence,” Taft said, stretched out beneath his bed’s wooden headboard on which he’s carved the words “death row.”
“I’ll die here,” he said.
Why Hasn’t The FDA Learned From Past Failures?
A generation ago, tens of thousands of women were injured by the Dalkon Shield, an intrauterine device that caused life-threatening infections. Consumer advocates demanded testing and pre-market approval of medical devices to prevent deaths and injuries associated with defective products.
So in 1976, Congress passed the Medical Device Amendment, a law meant to assure Americans that devices recommended by their doctors would do good and not harm.
“Until today, the American consumer could not be sure that a medical device used by his physician, his hospital or himself was as safe and effective as it could or should be,” President Gerald Ford said when he signed the bill into law.
Charged with carrying out the law, the FDA created three classes of medical devices. High-risk products like spinal-cord stimulators are designated to be held to the most rigorous clinical testing standards. But the vast majority of devices go through a less stringent review process that provides an easy path to market for devices deemed “substantially equivalent” to products already approved for use.
As designed by Congress, that process should have been phased out. Instead, it became the standard path to market for thousands of devices, including hip replacements implanted in tens of thousands of patients that would later be recalled because metal shavings from the devices made some people sick.
The AP found that the FDA has allowed some spinal-cord stimulators to reach the market without new clinical studies, approving them largely based on results from studies of earlier spinal stimulators.
Spinal stimulators are complex devices that send electrical currents through wires placed along the spine, using a battery implanted under the skin. An external remote controls the device.
The four biggest makers of spinal-cord stimulators are Boston Scientific Corp., based in Marlborough, Massachusetts; Medtronic, with headquarters in Ireland and the U.S.; Nevro, in Redwood City, California; and Illinois-based Abbott, which entered the market after its $23.6 billion purchase of St. Jude Medical, Inc.
St. Jude’s application to go to market with its first spinal stimulator contained no original patient data and was based on clinical results from other studies, while Boston Scientific’s application for its Precision spinal-cord stimulator was based largely on older data, though it did include a small, original study of 26 patients who were tracked for as little as two weeks.
Once approved, medical device companies can use countless supplementary requests to alter their products, even when the changes are substantial.
For example, there have been only six new spinal-cord stimulator devices approved since 1984, with 835 supplemental changes to those devices given the go-ahead through the middle of this year, the AP found. Medtronic alone has been granted 394 supplemental changes to its stimulator since 1984, covering everything from altering the sterilization process to updating the design.
“It’s kind of the story of FDA’s regulation of devices, where they’re just putting stuff on the market,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, who has studied medical devices for nearly 30 years.
Medical device manufacturers have cited multiple industry-funded studies showing the effectiveness of spinal-cord stimulation in the treatment of chronic pain. Experts say treatment is considered successful if pain is reduced by at least half, but not every patient experiences that much pain reduction.
A 2016 study looking at different stimulation systems found “significant evidence” that they were “a safe, clinical and cost-effective treatment for many chronic pain conditions.”
But Zuckerman noted that the more extensive studies came after the devices were being widely used on people. “These patients are guinea pigs,” she said.
FDA said in a statement that it approves, clears or grants marketing authorization to an average of 12 devices per business day and its decisions are “based on valid scientific evidence” that the devices are safe and effective.
Dr. Walter J. Koroshetz, director at the neurological disorders and stroke division at the National Institutes of Health, said trials for medical devices like spinal-cord stimulators are generally small and industry-sponsored, with a “substantial” placebo effect.
“I don’t know of anyone who is happy with spinal-cord technology as it stands,” Koroshetz said. “I think everybody thinks it can be better.”
Every time Jim Taft walked into his pain management doctor’s office, he would glance at the brochures touting spinal-cord stimulators — the ones with pictures of people swimming, biking and fishing.
Inside the exam room, Taft said, his doctor told him the device had been successful for his other patients and would improve his quality of life.
On lifetime worker’s compensation after his right arm was crushed as he was hauling materials for an architectural engineering company, Taft had been seeing the doctor for five years before he decided to get a stimulator in 2014. What finally swayed him, he said, was the doctor’s plan to wean him off painkillers.
Taft said his pain management doctor praised the technology, saying stimulators had improved the quality of life for his patients. But four years later, Taft is unable to walk more than a few steps.
Taft is one of 40 patients interviewed by the AP who said they had problems with spinal-cord stimulators. The AP found them through online forums for people with medical devices. Twenty-eight of them said their spinal-cord stimulators not only failed to alleviate pain but left them worse off than before their surgeries.
Zuckerman, who has worked at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and as a senior policy adviser to then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, said no doctor wants to think they’re harming patients.
“But there’s a tremendous financial incentive to downplay, ignore or forget bad patient experiences and just focus on how happy patients are,” she said.
More than half the patients interviewed by the AP said they felt pressured to get stimulators because they feared their doctors would cut off their pain medications — the only thing helping them.
Stimulators are considered a treatment of “last resort” by insurance companies, as well as Medicare and Medicaid. That means doctors must follow a protocol before insurance will pay for the device and implantation.
Physicians must show that conservative treatments failed to help, and patients also undergo psychological assessments to evaluate the likelihood of success. They then typically undergo a trial period lasting three days to a week with thin electrodes inserted under the skin. If patients say they got relief from the external transmitter sending electrical pulses to the contacts near their spines, they have surgery to implant a permanent stimulator.
Taft said his three-day trial helped reduce his pain so, a few days before his surgery, he began preparing for a new life. He ordered lumber to refurbish a patio and deck for his wife, Renee, as thanks for her years of support.
In April 2014, Boston Scientific’s Precision stimulator was implanted in Taft by Jason Highsmith, a Charleston, South Carolina, neurosurgeon who has received $181,000 from the company over the past five years in the form of consulting fees and payments for travel and entertainment. A Boston Scientific sales representative was in the operating room — a common practice, the AP found.
Highsmith would not comment on the payments. Other doctors have defended the practice, saying they do important work that helps the companies — and ultimately patients — and deserve to be compensated for their time.
From the time Taft was cut open and the device placed inside his body, he had nothing but problems, according to hundreds of pages of medical records reviewed by the AP. The device began randomly shocking him, and the battery burned his skin.
Taft and his wife complained repeatedly, but said his doctors and a Boston Scientific representative told them that spinal-cord stimulators don’t cause the kind of problems he had.
That runs counter to Boston Scientific’s own literature, which acknowledges that spinal stimulators and the procedures to implant them carry risks, such as the leads moving, overstimulation, paralysis and infections.
That also is not reflected in the AP’s analysis of FDA injury reports, which found shocking and burning had been reported for all major models of spinal-cord stimulators. For Boston Scientific devices, infection was the most common complaint over the past decade, mentioned in more than 4,000 injury reports.
In response to questions, the company called infection “unfortunately a risk in any surgical procedure” that the company works hard to avoid. It added that the FDA’s data “shouldn’t be interpreted as a causal sign of a challenge with our device. In fact, many examples of reportable infections include those that were caused by the surgical procedure or post-operative care.”
“In our internal quality assessments, over 95 percent of the injury reports were temporary or reversible in nature,” the company added.
Taft said had he known the devices hurt so many people, he would have reconsidered getting one. A Boston Scientific sales representative tried reprogramming the device, he said, but nothing worked.
“I told them that it feels like the lead is moving up and down my spine,” Taft said. “They said, ‘It can’t move.’” But in July 2014, X-rays revealed the lead indeed had moved — two inches on one side.
Highsmith told the AP the electrode broke from “vigorous activity,” though Taft said that would not have been possible due to his condition. Taft said he was in such bad shape after his surgery that he was never able to redo the patio and deck for his wife or do anything else vigorous.
That October, Highsmith said, he operated on Taft to install a new lead, tested the battery and reinserted it.
Still, Taft’s medical records show that he continued to report numbness, tingling and pain. During a January 2015 appointment, a physician assistant wrote that the device “seemed to make his pain worse.”
The stimulator was surgically removed in August 2015. The following June, Taft got a second opinion from a clinic that specializes in spinal injuries, which said he had “significant axial and low back pain due to implantation and explantation” of the stimulator.
Highsmith said other doctors have documented severe arthritis in Taft and that, while he has not examined Taft in more than three years, it’s “likely his current condition is the result of disease progression and other factors.”
He did not answer questions about whether he informed Taft of the risks associated with stimulators.
The doctor said the overwhelming majority of his spinal-cord stimulator patients gain significant pain relief.
“Unfortunately, in spite of the major medical breakthroughs with devices like these, some patients still suffer from intractable pain,” he said.
Renee Taft, a paralegal, reached out to Boston Scientific in 2017, but said the company refused to help because her husband’s stimulator had been removed and blamed Taft for his problems, also saying he had engaged in “rigorous physical activity” after surgery.
In the letter from the company’s legal department, Boston Scientific also noted that federal law shielded manufacturers from personal liability claims involving medical devices approved by the FDA.
In response to questions from investigators, Boston Scientific again blamed Taft’s “activity level” but didn’t elaborate. The company also said other factors could contribute to his problems such as “hyperalgesia, a phenomenon associated with long-term opioid use which results in patients becoming increasingly sensitive to some stimuli.”
Since 2005, there have been 50 recalls involving spinal stimulators, averaging about four per year in the last five years. Roughly half the recalls involved stimulators made by Medtronic, the world’s largest device manufacturer, though none warned of a risk of serious injury or death.
The experience of nearly all the 40 patients interviewed by the AP reflected one common fact. Their pain was reduced during the trial but returned once their stimulators were implanted.
Experts say the answer may be a placebo effect created when expectations are built up during the trial that only the stimulator can offer relief from pain, exacerbated by patients not wanting to disappoint family members, who often have been serving as their caregivers.
“If patients know this is a last resort, a last hope, of course they will respond well,” said Dr. Michael Gofeld, a Toronto-based anesthesiologist and pain management specialist who has studied and implanted spinal-cord stimulators in both the U.S. and Canada.
By the time the trial ends, the patient is “flying high, the endorphin levels are high,” Gofeld said.
Manufacturer representatives are heavily involved during the entire process. Along with often being in the operating room during surgery in case the physician has questions, they meet with patients to program the devices in the weeks following surgery.
Most of the patients interviewed by the AP said the adjustments to their devices were performed by sales representatives, often with no doctor or nurse present. That includes one patient who was billed for programming as if the doctor was in the room, though he was not.
“People who are selling the device should not be in charge of maintenance,” Gofeld said. “It’s totally unethical.”
In a 2015 Texas case, a former Medtronic sales representative filed suit contending she was fired after complaining that the company trained employees to program neurostimulators without physicians present. She also claimed that a Medtronic supervisor snatched surgical gloves away from her when she refused to bandage a patient during a procedure, pushed her aside and then cleaned and dressed the patient’s wound. Medtronic denied the allegations, and the case was settled on undisclosed terms.
In the Justice Department case involving Medtronic, a salesman who said he earned as much as $600,000 a year selling spinal-cord stimulators claimed sales representatives encouraged physicians to perform unnecessary procedures that drove up the costs for Medicare and other federal health programs.
“While there have been a few instances where individuals or affiliates did not comply with Medtronic’s policies, we acted to remedy the situation in each case once discovered and to correct any misconduct,” the company said.
Gofeld said he believes stimulators do work, but that many of the problems usually arise when doctors don’t choose appropriate candidates. And he thinks the stimulators are used too often in the U.S.
Nevro, one of the four big manufacturers, has cited estimates that there are as many as 4,400 facilities in the U.S where spinal-stimulation devices are implanted by a variety of physicians, including neurosurgeons, psychiatrists and pain specialists.
It’s a lucrative business . Analysts say stimulators and the surgery to implant them costs between $32,000 and $50,000, with the device itself constituting $20,000 to $25,000 of that amount. If surgery is performed in a hospital, the patient usually stays overnight, and the hospital charges a facility fee for obtaining the device. Costs are typically covered by insurance.
The AP found that doctors can make more money if they perform the surgery at physician-owned outpatient surgery centers, since the doctor buys the device, marks it up and adds on the facility fee.
In Canada, where Gofeld now works, he said the surgeries are done only by those who specialize in the procedures. He said spinal-cord stimulators should be used when pain starts and not after failed back surgeries.
“By then,” he said, “it’s too late.”
When Surgeries Never Stop
While manufacturers and top FDA officials tout stimulators as a weapon in the battle against opioids, neurosurgeons like Steven Falowski are the front-line evangelists.
“Chronic pain is one of the largest health-care burdens we have in the U.S. It’s more than heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined,” Falowski said in an interview. If they’re used early enough for pain, they can prevent people from going on opium-based pain killers, said Falowski, who speaks at neuromodulation conferences and teaches other doctors how to implant stimulators.
Since 2013, device manufacturers have paid Falowski — or St. Luke’s University Health Network in Fountain Hill, Pennsylvania, where he works — nearly $863,000, including $611,000 from St. Jude or its new parent company, Abbott, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services database. The payments range from consulting fees to travel and entertainment expenses.
Falowski said he has conducted research and done other work for manufacturers, adding, “The contracts with industry are with my hospital and not with me.”
St. Luke’s told the AP that it keeps the majority of the payments from device makers, but that Falowski “may receive a portion of these payments through his annual compensation.” AP’s analysis showed Abbott products were more likely than other major models to include reports of a hot or burning sensation near the site of the battery, with about 5,600 injury reports since 2008 referring to the words “heat” or “burn.”
Abbott said that many of the “adverse events” reports in the FDA’s data stemmed from a device that was voluntarily recalled in 2011. The company added that feeling a temperature increase at the implant site “is often a reality for rechargeable spinal-cord stimulation systems,” which is why the company is now concentrating on devices that do not need to be recharged.
Falowski said doctors do important work for medical device companies, and he has been involved in device development, education, clinical trials and research.
“You’re trying to help patients and you realize as a physician by yourself you’re not going to generate $200 million to make the next best implant for a patient and it’s going to take a company to do that,” he said. “So I think the important part in that relationship is transparency and disclosures.”
Experts interviewed by the AP said doctors are not legally required to tell their patients about financial relationships with medical device manufacturers, but that it would be the right thing to do.
“The patient should be fully informed before consenting to a procedure,” said Genevieve P. Kanter, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in internal medicine, medical ethics and health policy.
Abbott Issues Warning After Surgeries For Thousands of Patients
In October 2016, Abbott notified physicians and patients that a subset of ICD and cardiac resynchronization therapy defibrillator (CRT-D) devices manufactured between January 2010 and May 2015 could potentially experience premature battery depletion due to short circuits from lithium clusters.
The potential for premature battery depletion in the affected devices is low. The new Battery Performance Alert can be used as a tool to further assist in identifying the potential for these devices to experience premature battery depletion.
It’s a voluntary recall, so patients are being told to consult with their doctors before coming in for the procedure — which thankfully consists of a simple 3-minute wireless firmware update (using a wand, according to the pamphlet) instead of anything invasive.
The FDA-approved firmware update actually includes a pair of important-sounding fixes. In addition to some enhanced security, the update also comes with a way to detect if a device’s battery drains abnormally quickly and alert the patient.
The FDA and Abbott say they haven’t had issues with any of the 50,000 firmware updates they’ve installed on devices like this so far.
Based on historical results as well as litigation related to adverse events with medical device FDA approvals and disclosures by device makers, it would seem that the reality of the dangers related to this device and thousands of other FDA approved devices, we may never know the truth on how dangerous these products really are.
(Images and text excerpts have been taken from NBC News and Associated Press media releases)
> Superseding indictments of Insys Therapeutics Executives Unsealed in USDC of Massachusetts
BOSTON — A federal indictment against seven high-ranking officers of opioid maker Insys Therapeutics Inc. was unsealed Oct. 26 in a Massachusetts federal court charging the men with racketeering, mail fraud and conspiracy for a scheme to pay kickbacks to doctors for, and to fraudulently induce health insurers into approving, off-label prescriptions for the company’s addictive Subsys fentanyl spray (United States of America v. Michael L. Babich, et al., No. 16-cr-10343, D. Mass.).
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — A Rhode Island doctor on Oct. 25 pleaded guilty to health care fraud and taking kickbacks for prescribing the opioid Subsys to unqualified patients (United States of America v. Jerrold N. Rosenberg, No. 17-9, D. R.I.).
> Opioid Distributors Support MDL While Municipalities Oppose
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The “Big Three” national drug distributors on Oct. 20 told a federal judicial panel that they support centralization of more than 60 opioid lawsuits filed against them by various cities and counties (In Re: National Prescription Opiate Litigation, MDL Docket No. 2804, JPML).
>First Cook IVC Bellwether Trial Starts in USDC SD of Indiana
INDIANAPOLIS — The first bellwether trial in the Cook Medical Inc. inferior vena cava (IVC) filter multidistrict litigation got under way on Oct. 23 in Indianapolis federal court (In re: Cook Medical, Inc., IVC Filters Litigation, MDL Docket No. 2570, No. 14-ml-2570, Elizabeth Jane Hill v. Cook Medical, Inc., No. 14-6016, S.D. Ind., Indianapolis Div.).
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Plaintiffs in an inferior vena cava (IVC) filter case on Oct. 18 told the U.S. Supreme Court that their suggestion of individual bellwether trials does not convert their actions into a mass action under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), 119 Stat. 4 (Cordis Corporation v. Jerry Dunson, et al., No. 17-257, U.S. Sup., 2017 U.S. S. Ct. Briefs LEXIS 4013).
>Taxotere MDL Judge Denies Statute of Limitations Motion by Sanofi
NEW ORLEANS — The Louisiana federal judge overseeing the Taxotere multidistrict litigation on Oct. 27 denied without prejudice a motion by defendant Sanofi-Aventis U.S. LLC to dismiss claims barred by applicable statutes of limitations (In Re: Taxotere [Docetaxel] Products Liability Litigation, MDL Docket No. 2740, No. 16-md-2740, E.D. La.).
>Exclusion of 510(k) Defense in Boston Scientific Pelvic Mesh Case:
ATLANTA — The 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Oct. 19 said multidistrict litigation court judge did not err in consolidating four pelvic mesh cases for a bellwether trial and in excluding the so-called 510(k) defense raised by defendant Boston Scientific Corp. (BSC) (Amal Eghnayem, et al. v. Boston Scientific Corporation, No. 16-11818, 11th Cir., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 20432).
>Plaintiff Loses Plavix Case on Summary Judgment Over Late “Learned Intermediary” Declaration
TRENTON, N.J. — The judge overseeing the Plavix multidistrict litigation on Oct. 26 granted summary judgment in a case after ruling that the plaintiff’s “eleventh hour” declaration by one treating physician did not overcome California’s learned intermediary defense for defendants Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (BMS) and Sanofi-Aventis U.S. Inc. (In Re: Plavix Products Liability Litigation, MDL Docket No. 2418, No. 13-4518, D. N.J., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177588).
NEW YORK — The Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals on Oct. 24 affirmed the exclusion of general causation experts in the Mirena multidistrict litigation and a court order terminating the MDL before any trials were held (In Re: Mirena IUD Products Liability Litigation, Mirena MDL Plaintiffs v. Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Nos. 16-2890 and 16-3012, 2nd Cir., 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 20875).
ATLANTA — Wright Medical Technology Inc. and plaintiffs in a multidistrict litigation have entered two additional agreements settling the remainder of the litigation, a Georgia federal judge said Oct. 18 (In Re: Wright Medical Technology, Inc., Conserve Hip Implant Products Liability, MDL Docket No. 2329, No. 12-md-2329, N.D. Ga., Atlanta Div
>Testosterone Bellwether Out and Pre-emption Denied
CHICAGO — An Illinois multidistrict litigation judge on Oct. 23 granted summary judgment in one of two testosterone replacement therapy bellwether cases but denied preemption in the second case (In Re: Testosterone Replacement Therapy Litigation, MDL Docket No. 2545, No. 14-1748, N.D. Ill., Eastern Div., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 176522).
CHICAGO — AbbVie on Oct. 25 urged the judge overseeing the testosterone replacement therapy multidistrict litigation to not disturb a bellwether trial verdict where a jury awarded $0 compensatory damages (In Re: Testosterone Replacement Therapy Products Liability Litigation, MDL Docket No. 2545, No. 14-1748, Jesse Mitchell v. AbbVie, No. 14-9178, N.D. Ill.).
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Counsel for more than 500 Fosamax femur fracture plaintiffs on Oct. 25 urged the U.S. Supreme Court to deny certiorari to Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp., arguing that their claims are not preempted by “clear evidence” that the Food and Drug Administration would have rejected stronger warnings for the osteoporosis drug (Merck Sharpe & Dohme Corp. v. Doris Albrecht, et al., No. 17-290, U.S. Sup., 2017 U.S. S. Ct. Briefs LEXIS 4064
Plaintiffs who have filed suit against Bayer over its Mirena hormone-coated birth control device have succeeded in having a second multidistrict litigation docket (MDL) focusing on injuries caused by increased intracranial pressure.
Judge Paul A. Engelmayer in the Southern District of New York will preside over 113 actions pending in 17 districts in MDL No. 2767, In Re: Mirena Ius Levonorgestrel-related Products Liability Litigation (No. II).
First answer is “no”
In July 2014, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (MDL) denied a motion for centralization filed by a different group of plaintiffs alleging that Mirena’s hormonal component causes or substantially contributes to the development of intracranial hypertension. See In re: Mirena Levonorgestrel-Related Prods. Liab. Litig., 38 F. Supp. 3d 1380 (J.P.M.L. 2014). The motion sought centralization of nine actions pending in six districts, all brought by the same counsel against a single defendant, BHCP. At that time, there were six potential tag-along actions.
In denying centralization, the JPMDL observed that the actions involved common factual issues, but determined that informal coordination was preferable to centralization in light of the limited number of actions, the few involved plaintiffs’ counsel, and defendant BHCP’s commitment to coordinating common discovery.
In November, the JPMDL reopened MDL 2434 in the Southern District of New York for product liability claims involving migration of the IUD in the uterus. It does not include any claims that the synthetic levonorgestrel hormone coating causes intracranial pressure or hypertension.
In the second motion for centralization, plaintiffs argue that the litigation has expanded dramatically over the past two years in terms of the number of actions, districts, and distinct plaintiffs’ firms independently litigating the actions, and informal coordination of discovery and pretrial motions has become impracticable. Bayer opposed centralization.
Second answer is “yes”
The JPMDL said, “First, the number of actions, districts, and counsel have grown substantially. The motion for centralization encompasses 113 pending actions in 17 districts, and there are at least 37 potential tagalong actions bringing the total number of involved districts to 20. The number of distinct plaintiffs’ counsel involved in this litigation also has expanded. There now are at least 12 unaffiliated plaintiffs’ firms in widely dispersed geographic locations. And although Bayer continues to have national coordinating counsel, at least 20 firms are litigating the underlying actions on the motion on its behalf. In our judgment, the number of actions, districts, and plaintiffs’ and defense counsel make effective coordination on an informal basis impracticable.”
“Second, the plaintiff-specific causation issues identified byBayer presently do not appear to be an obstacle to centralization, considering the development of the litigation over the past two years. While we previously expressed concern that individualized causation issues might predominate in this litigation, the records in the manyactions filed since then demonstrate that discoveryand pretrial motions concerning the issue of general causation have been, or will be, at the center of all actions – that is, whetherthe hormonal component in Mirena is capable of causing intracranial hypertension.”
“Third, the record demonstrates that centralization is necessary to facilitate the efficient conduct of common discovery. Although fact and expert discovery has closed in the ten longest pending actions, discovery remains open in nearly all other actions, with most actions at a relatively early stage of discovery or still at the pleading stage. While Bayer asserts that the longer pending 4 proceedings have resulted in the completion of all common discovery, plaintiffs vigorously disagree.”
“Fourth, although a handful of actions are in an advanced procedural posture, the transferee judge possesses broad discretion to formulate a pretrial program that accounts for any significant differences among the actions and ensures that duplicative activity is minimized or eliminated.”
The lawsuits share factual questions arising out of allegations that the synthetic hormone released by Mirena causes abnormal elevation of cerebrospinal fluid in the skull, resulting in a neurological condition referred to as intracranial hypertension or pseudotumor cerebri, and that defendants did not adequately warn prescribing physicians or consumers of the alleged risk. Issues concerning general causation, the background science, and Mirena’s labeling and regulatory history with respect to the alleged injury will be common to all actions.