Washington — President Barack Obama on Tuesday signed into law a $6.3 billion legislative package that expedites government review of drugs and medical devices, boosts cancer and Alzheimer’s research and combats opioid abuse.
At the White House ceremony, Republican Rep. Fred Upton of southwest Michigan stood to the right of the president as Obama used a dozen pens to sign the legislation, known as the 21st Century Cures Act. It was likely the last bill signing of Obama’s eight-year presidency.
Obama thanked Upton and other architects of the bill, including Reps. Frank Pallone, D-New Jersey; Diana DeGette, D-Colorado; and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee.
“We are bringing to reality the possibility of new breakthroughs to some of the greatest health challenges of our time,” Obama said.
In a statement with DeGette, Upton said, “Patients needed a game-changer, and it is our hope that history will look back at the Cures effort as the moment in time when the tide finally turned against disease.”
The legislation authorizes 10 years worth of funding, including $1.8 billion for a cancer research “moonshot” effort supported by Vice President Joe Biden.
“God willing, this bill will literally, not figuratively, save lives,” said Biden, whose 46-year-old son, Beau, died last year after a long battle with brain cancer.
“But most of all what it does is give millions of Americans hope. Probably not one of you in this audience or anyone listening to this who hasn’t had a family member or friend or someone touched by cancer.”
The bill restructures federal mental health programs and envisions $4.8 billion in funding for the National Institutes of Health, if future Congresses appropriate the funds.
The bill also aims to improve and “modernize” the development of new drugs and treatments. Critics had wanted the measure to include controls for drug pricing and say that speeding up the drug and device approvals will compromise patient safety.
“We’re building on the FDA’s work to modernize clinical trial design so that we’re updating necessary rules and regulations to protect consumers so that they’re taking into account this genetic biotech age,” Obama said. “And we’re making sure that patients’ voices are incorporated into the drug development process.”
The package includes $1 billion over two years, including $500 million in 2017, in grant money for states to help prevent and treat abuse of opioids and other addictive drugs such as heroin. Obama somberly noted the number of opioid overdoses that have nearly quadrupled since 1999.
When he first proposed the spending earlier this year, the White House said Michigan would be eligible for an estimated $28 million over the two years, depending on the strength of the state’s plan to combat the epidemic.
Michael Botticelli, director of National Drug Control Policy for the White House, said Tuesday that states will have some flexibility in how they deploy the grant funding, but it’s intended in part to close gaps in treatment coverage in under-served areas of the country.
“We know that the states really needed federal resources, and they should expect federal resources to really look at how we continue to prevent additional prescription drug misuse and specifically how we think about closing the treatment gap, ensuring everybody gets access to treatment,” Botticelli told reporters.
A West Virginia couple, David and Kate Grubb, spoke at the bill signing about their firsthand experience with the “treatment gap.” After their daughter, Jessica, had a nearly fatal overdose, she sought long-term treatment for her heroin addiction.
“The closest place we could find to send Jessica was six hours away in Ann Arbor, Michigan,” said David Grubb, a former state senator from Charleston.
He praised the legislation for dedicating money to the problem, especially in hard-hit areas like West Virginia.
Jessica lived seven months clean before she had to have surgery for a running injury. Her parents drove to Ann Arbor to be with her. And though her medical records warned hospital staff that she was a recovering addict, the doctor who discharged her prescribed Oxycodone for her recovery.
“That night, Jessie died. March 2 of this year,” her father said. “Since that time, we have dedicated ourselves to fighting back against the stigma of opioid addiction and drug addiction, so that we can begin the process of treating this as the disease it is.”