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Commentary

Prescription for Trouble
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, Wall Street Journal, 3-6-07

Gottlieb, a former Deputy Commissioner at the FDA, argues that the government is steadily encroaching on physician autonomy—with potentially dangerous consequences for patient care.

The Food and Drug Administration, Medicare and even the Justice Department all believe they cannot rely on many doctors to heed safety warnings, wisely weigh new medical information, or follow treatment approaches that maximize health benefits or lower costs. So in recent years, these agencies have hatched rules that dictate when treatments should be delivered and even how they can be administered—especially when it comes to new drugs.

The result is increasing federal regulation of medical practice that constrains health-care providers and limits the choices patients have. It might get worse. New legislation offered by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.,) and Michael Enzi (R., Wyo.,), intended to make drugs safer, would raise this regulatory burden by reducing a physician's discretion to exercise clinical judgment and erecting barriers that will exacerbate disparities in access to care.

The legislative proposal extends the FDA's ability to restrict which physicians can prescribe a medicine, and which pharmacies can dispense it, through risk- management plans that would accompany the approval of many new drugs. These "RiskMAPs," as they are called inside the FDA, already guide the use of about 30 marketed drugs as part of "voluntary" arrangements with drug companies.

Right now, pharmaceutical companies propose the plans to better balance the risks and benefits of their drugs, in order to secure FDA approval. But these plans impose burdens, especially on patients who already face difficulty obtaining the specialist care that many RiskMAPs require for the dispensing of new drugs. Thus the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry have mostly confined RiskMAPs to drugs with unpredictable and potentially deadly risks, such as anaphylaxis or rapid organ failure.

That sense of restraint is lifting. New proposals by Congress and the Institute of Medicine advocate RiskMAPs for mitigating a wider set of less-serious problems and to constrain the off-label prescribing of new drugs, even though such prescribing is the standard of care for many diseases. The proposals are gaining traction. Once the FDA is granted the authority to simply impose these RiskMAPs on drug companies, there will be a lot of political pressure on the agency to constrain prescription writing in the name of drug safety.



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