REMS changes during the COVID-19 pandemic
The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has necessarily changed the structure of REMS and ETASU requirements for many medications, with changes made in order to mitigate viral transmission through the limitation of unnecessary visits to clinics or hospitals. The FDA announced in March of 2020 that it would not enforce pre-prescription requirements, such as laboratory or magnetic resonance imaging results, for many medications (including those more toxic then mifepristone), and that it would lift the requirement for in-person dispensation of several medications.9 Also in March 2020 the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS) and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) activated a “telemedicine exception” to allow physicians to use telemedicine to satisfy mandatory requirements for prescribing controlled substances, including opioids.10
Despite repeated pleas from organizations, individuals, and physician groups, the FDA continued to enforce the REMS/ETASU for mifepristone as the pandemic decimated communities. Importantly, the pandemic has not had an equal effect on all communities, and the disparities highlighted in outcomes as related to COVID-19 are also reflected in disparities to access to reproductive choices.11 By enforcing REMS/ETASU for mifepristone during a global pandemic, the FDA has placed additional burden on women and people who menstruate. As offices and clinics have closed, and as many jobs have evaporated, additional barriers have emerged, such as lack of childcare, fewer transportation options, and decreased clinic appointments.
As the pandemic continues to affect communities in the United States, ACOG has issued guidance recommending assessment for eligibility for medical abortion remotely, and has encouraged the use of telemedicine and other remote interactions for its members and patients to limit transmission of the virus.
On May 27, 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) (on behalf of ACOG, the Council of University Chairs of Obstetrics and Gynecology, New York State Academy of Family Physicians, SisterSong, and Honor MacNaughton, MD) filed a civil action against the FDA and HHS challenging the requirement for in-person dispensing of mifepristone and associated ETASU requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic. The plaintiffs sought this injunction based on the claim that these restrictions during the pandemic infringe on the constitutional rights to patients’ privacy and liberty and to equal protection of the law as protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Additionally, the ACLU and other organizations said these unnecessary restrictions place patients, providers, and staff at unnecessary risk of viral exposure amidst a global pandemic.
On July 13, 2020, a federal court granted the preliminary injunction to suspend FDA’s enforcement of the in-person requirements of mifepristone for abortion during the COVID-19 pandemic. The court denied the motion for suspension of in-person restrictions as applied to miscarriage management. The preliminary injunction applies nationwide without geographic limitation. It will remain in effect until the end of the litigation or for 30 days following the expiration of the public health emergency.
What the outcome means
This injunction is a step in the right direction for patients and providers to allow for autonomy and clinical practice guided by clinician expertise. However, this ruling remains narrow. Patients must be counseled about mifepristone via telemedicine and sign a Patient Agreement Form, which must be returned electronically or by mail. Patients must receive a copy of the mifepristone medication guide, and dispensing of mifepristone must still be conducted by or under the supervision of a certified provider. The medication may not be dispensed by retail pharmacies, thus requiring providers to arrange for mailing of prescriptions to patients. Given state-based legal statutes regarding mailing of medications, this injunction may not lead to an immediate increase in access to care. In addition, patients seeking management for miscarriage must go to clinic to have mifepristone dispensed and thus risk exposure to viral transmission.