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WLF to CMS: Deem Medical Textbooks Educational Materials or Face Potential First Amendment Challenge

May 16, 2013 – The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) is likely “to find itself the target of a First Amendment lawsuit by affected parties” if it does not consider medical textbooks to be “educational materials that directly benefit patients” which are excluded from a reporting requirement under the final rules implementing the Physician Payment Sunshine Act, according to a May 15 letter to CMS from the Washington Legal Foundation (WLF).

In its letter (CMS Textbook Policy), WLF asks CMS  to delay application of reporting requirements to medical textbooks until it has had an opportunity to examine the First Amendment implications of including these items as “transfers of value” from manufacturers to doctors.

Coalition for Healthcare Communication (CHC) Executive Director John Kamp remarked that the WLF letter “is strong, balanced, nuanced and likely to be effective. Indeed, if WLF convinces CMS to reverse itself on textbooks, the same reasoning applies to journal supplements, reprints and Website publications that are distributed with company support.”

Specifically, WLF contends the following in its letter:

  • The distribution of medical textbooks is speech protected by the First Amendment;
  • Although CMS is not banning speech, it is substantially burdening speech (and such burdens are subject to First Amendment constraints);
  • The Sunshine final rule’s disclosure requirement imposes a substantial burden on the right to speak by distributing medical textbooks;
  • Application of the Sunshine Act to medical textbooks does not serve any substantial government interests; and
  • CMS can avoid First Amendment difficulties by construing the Act as inapplicable to medical textbooks.

“Applying the reporting requirements to medical textbooks would constitute a serious infringement on the First Amendment rights of pharmaceutical companies to disseminate medical texts and the First Amendment rights of doctors to receive such information,” WLF Chief Counsel Richard A. Samp wrote in the letter to CMS Acting Administrator Marilyn Tavenner.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that disclosure requirements of this sort [imposed by the final rule] are subject to ‘exacting scrutiny’ and can pass muster under the First Amendment only if shown to serve important government interests that outweigh the burdens they impose on speakers,” the letter states.

The WLF also states that the burden of reporting and doctors’ concerns about being included on a list of those receiving payments from drug companies will cause doctors to decline offers of medical textbooks and cause companies to cease disseminating them. Because medical textbooks communicate truthful information that helps doctors treat patients, the WLF asserts that they are fully protected by the First Amendment, as demonstrated by multiple U.S. Supreme Court decisions. “By all accounts, medical textbooks supplied by drug companies to doctors ‘directly benefit patients’ – doctors regularly use information gleaned from the textbooks in their treatment of patients,” according to the WLF.

As further evidence that medical textbooks constitute protected speech under the First Amendment, the WLF states that its 1998 lawsuit against the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) resulted in the FDA being subject to a permanent injunction limiting FDA authority to suppress manufacturer dissemination of medical textbooks discussing off-label uses of their FDA-approved products.

“There is little evidence that Congress intended to single out textbook dissemination and other expressive activities for special disapprobation, but the effect of the Act (as interpreted by CMS) is to burden this expressive activity to such an extent that much of the activity will cease,” the WLF letter states. Samp concludes the letter by stating that “in light of the grave constitutional issues raised by CMS’s rule, courts will not defer to CMS’s reading of the Act … even if they deem it a plausible reading,” and advises CMS to reconsider and allow these educational materials to be excluded from reporting requirements.

“Exempting these as educational items not only makes sense under the Sunshine Act, it makes great public policy sense,” CHC’s Kamp said. “Informing doctors about the latest science and practice guidelines drives improved patient care. Everyone can salute that result.”