Robert Charrow

Solving Legal Challenges at HHS

The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus has triggered an outbreak of legal issues, with Robert Charrow, the general counsel of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,  at the epicenter.

In January, HHS dusted off the federal quarantine law, to justify the confinement of 195 Americans to a California military base, after they had been exposed to the virus in China.  The last large-scale quarantine in the U.S. was during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. 

“The scope of our quarantine authority is remarkably broad,” Charrow says, citing a federal statute that gives HHS “plenary authority” to prevent the entry and spread of communicable disease from foreign countries into the U.S. “It has been that way since the nation was founded.”

Robert Charrow, JD ’69, general counsel of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in his Washington, D.C., office (photo by Mike Morgan)

Leading an office of 600 lawyers, Charrow, JD ’69, holds one of the most consequential positions in health care law.

HHS oversees the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HHS has helped to lead the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Few agencies so affect the daily lives of American citizens.

“You see issues here you never see in private practice,” Charrow explains during an interview in February in his office at HHS headquarters at the foot of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. “It is perhaps the most fun a lawyer can have, being the general counsel or the deputy general counsel for a department like HHS.”

For the 75-year-old lawyer, government service is the capstone of a long and distinguished career. 

Over three decades in private practice, Charrow focused on health care law, administrative law, and general appellate litigation. He has represented academic medical centers, learned societies, hospital systems, research institutes, pharmaceutical companies, providers, and insurers.

He is considered an expert on the laws and regulations governing federally funded scientific research. He helped write an influential brief that was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark 1993 decision, Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, which set standards for the admissibility of scientific evidence at federal trials.

“Bob is a scientist, an unbiased umpire,” says Victor Schwartz, a Washington lawyer who co-authored the Daubert brief with Charrow.  “I don’t think he goes at it from a Republican point of view or a Democratic point of view.  It is from a Charrow point of view, which is a balls-and-strikes approach.”

Former colleagues describe him as a lawyer who relishes an intellectual challenge. 

“Bob likes solving problems. He likes having an issue to grapple with —a new one every day, like a vitamin,” says Laura Klaus, a lawyer in the Washington office of Greenberg Traurig, where Charrow was a longtime partner before becoming HHS general counsel in January 2018. 

“He was the guy everybody went to with their problems and issues,” adds Nancy Taylor, another Greenberg partner. “He worked with thousands of clients.”

“It is hard to think about how the department would respond to a crisis of this nature without the involvement of the lawyers in the Office of the General Counsel. I’ve been really impressed by the level of rigor Bob has brought to the office. ”

—Paula Stannard, JD ’90, Senior Adviser to HHS Secretary Alex Azar

A physics major in college, Charrow chose law over graduate school. At Stanford, besides a top-notch legal education, he got a life partner, Veda, PhD/MA ‘74, whom he met when she was beginning a graduate program in linguistics. They married in 1969 and later collaborated on a study of jury instructions, which was published in the Columbia Law Review.

As a young lawyer, Charrow worked as a legislative assistant in Congress on the federal privacy act and taught law for eight years until a phone call from a friend led to a job as counsel to President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign.

“I fully expected to go back to teaching when the campaign was over, but then I was asked if I wanted to stay on in the administration,” he recalls. Given the choice of positions, he chose the science-driven HHS, where he was deputy general counsel; his portfolio included negotiating patent rights to an AIDS test with the French government.

His current tour of duty has come to be defined by the legion of issues associated with the coronavirus—from issuing federal quarantine orders to coordinating with state and local governments and negotiating industry agreements. His office has worked with the airline industry to get contact information for passengers exposed to the virus, for example.

“It is hard to think about how the department would respond to a crisis of this nature without the involvement of the lawyers in the Office of the General Counsel,” says Paula Stannard, JD ’90, a senior adviser to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.  “I’ve been really impressed by the level of rigor Bob has brought to the office.”

Beyond the headlines, Charrow has helped to develop the legal rationale for a regulation requiring drugmakers to reveal the sticker price of their drugs in television ads. A U.S. District Court judge held that HHS did not have the power under the law to issue it—but the government has appealed. The rule is part of an effort to get pharmaceutical companies to lower their prices.

Charrow says he comes to such issues as a lawyer rather than as a policymaker. Testifying at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee in 2017, Charrow said that the general counsel of a federal agency “should act as a neutral arbiter assessing potential agency action as if he or she were a federal district judge.” 

“When an agency proposes something that I do not believe is consistent with the law, I will let them know and in most cases that means it doesn’t go forward,” says Charrow. “There are some policies I liked very much but which I thought were just inconsistent with the law. And you tell the client that.”  SL