By George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law
In a September 15, 2020 memorandum, the current Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Alex Azar, barred the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other federal health agencies under his authority from independently enacting any new federal regulations. The memo establishes that the Secretary must sign all agency rulemaking. This new policy affects all rules coming from all HHS agencies and offices, the department said, including the FDA, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), and Office for Civil Rights. It doesn’t apply to guidance documents, emergency use authorizations, or vaccine or drug approvals.
How long this policy stands after President-elect Biden is sworn in is anybody’s guess. It is my guess that it won’t last long.
Why Make the Changes?
According to HHS, the new regulation-making procedures are to ensure consistency within HHS, compliance with congressional intent, the need to minimize the risk of litigation, and to provide public accountability. HHS regulations have been challenged in court based on the argument that officials who signed new regulations did not have the proper authority to do so.
The memo attempts to rationalize the change in the face of critics who claim that the move could negatively affect public trust in approval of COVID-19 vaccines and the entire approval process.
Rulemaking Process Before and After the Memo.
Before the policy change, the law and established departmental procedure required that all new regulations go through departmental and White House clearance and receive the Secretary’s approval. The regulations were typically signed by the Secretary and by the head of the agency involved. In some instances, other officials to whom authority had been delegated signed the new regulations.
Now, all HHS regulations will still go through departmental and White House clearance and will continue to be approved by the Secretary. But, the change effectively bars the FDA and other health agencies from signing off on any new regulations regarding the nation’s food, medicine, and other products under the HHS umbrella. The HHS Secretary himself must now sign all final regulations.
HHS released the following statement on this action:
“Before and after this action, no regulation issues from any part of HHS without the approval of the Secretary and the White House. The only change made by this memo is that, instead of the Secretary’s just approving all agency regulations, each regulation now also will be formally signed by him.”
Click here to read the HHS Statement on Regulatory Process.
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Stein, Shira. “HHS Secretary to Sign All Rules in Bid to Stem Litigation.” Bloomberg Law. (September 21, 2020). Web.
Keller and Heckman LLP. “A New Policy by HHS Secretary Alex Azar Will Prevent FDA and Other Health Agencies From Signing Final Rules.” National Law Review. (September 21, 2020). Web.
About the Author: George F. Indest III, J.D., M.P.A., LL.M., is Board Certified by The Florida Bar in Health Law; he is the President and Managing Partner of The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its main office is in Orlando, Florida, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com The Health Law Firm, 1101 Douglas Ave. Suite 1000, Altamonte Springs, FL 32714, Phone: (407) 331-6620 Toll-Free: (888) 331-6620.
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