Starting this week, the House will hold hearings on reauthorizing the drug and medical device user fee programs that fund one-fourth of the agency. While user fees have become largely non-controversial, this “must-pass” legislation is Congress’ opportunity to consider dozens of other FDA issues, some controversial and many time-consuming.

During the last user fee reauthorization in 2007, multiple non-user fee issues delayed enactment of a new law until September 27, just a few days before the start of the new fiscal year. In FDA Matters’ view, FDA is in serious trouble in 2012 if it once again takes until September to complete the user fee reauthorization legislation.

There are two user fee programs up for reauthorization this year: the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA) and the Medical Device User Fee Act (MDUFA). In addition, two new user fee programs have been proposed by FDA. One covers generic drugs and the other biosimilars and interchangeable biologics.

If only these four user fees were at stake (two renewals, two new), Congress could conceivably be finished by July 1, 2012. This would be optimum for giving FDA enough time to invoice and collect the user fees for the coming fiscal year (FY 13). It would also give FDA time to start making new hires and to work on any additional requirements in the new law. A lot of things could be in place by the start of the fiscal year on October 1, 2012.

However, almost no FDA legislation has passed since the last reauthorization five years ago. Pent-up demand for FDA amendments is enormous and delays are to be expected. July 1 does not look like a realistic target to complete legislation.

What happened in 2007 is beyond instructive, it is frightening. As a general precaution, FDA left many staff positions vacant during 2007, just in case the user fee monies were not renewed. As required by law, FDA eventually issued lay-off notices to employees it could not pay if user fee monies were not available on October 1, 2007. While a formality, this created a great deal of distraction within the agency.

Simultaneously, the timing for invoicing companies and collecting fees was disrupted and fee revenue was not collected, as it usually is, by October 1. While FDA was dealing with this (which required delays in hiring), it faced the harsh reality that many provisions of the new law became effective immediately and had to be addressed with existing staff.

Memories seem to vary about the impact in 2007. I remember significant problems; others have told me the disruption was not consequential. In fact, there is direct evidence of the impact.

Below is a slide from a December 2011 presentation given by Dr. John Jenkins, head of the Office of New Drugs (OND) in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER). His intent was not to focus on 2007 or to draw comparisons, but the point seems quite clear.

The chart shows the number of pending drug applications on which FDA was behind schedule (as judged by the timeframes established in the user fee law). The green bars represent the most important applications, those involving new molecular entities (NMEs). The light blue bars represent other drug and biologics applications, while the violet bars represent applications for additional efficacy indications.

A backlog started to form in the second half of 2007. It increased significantly and lasted for more than 24 months. There may well have been other factors at work, but it seems more than a coincidence that the problems started at the same time as the disruption caused by the new law.

If 2012 becomes a repeat of 2007, then FDA will find itself under withering criticism later this year for not reviewing innovative drug applications in a timely fashion. Medical device are likely to be similarly impacted. FDA will be unhappy, companies with pending applications will be outraged, and patients will be short-changed as potential new therapies are delayed.

Congress needs to commit to speed up the process, minimize amendments, and make new provisions effective six months or a year after enactment. What is possible by July 1 is a House-Senate agreement on a very limited piece of non-controversial legislation that addresses user fees and perhaps one or two other items.

It is a disservice to FDA and the public health for Congress to do otherwise.

FDAslide 1

adapted and republished with permission by FDA Matters, a weekly blog covering FDA policy and regulation