Senate inches closer to companion disease ‘Cures’ bill

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A Senate committee approved a legislative package Wednesday that lawmakers say will become part of its response to House legislation by Michigan Rep. Fred Upton that is designed to deliver cash and reforms that would expedite treatment and cures of chronic diseases like cancer.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed five bills that the panel’s chairman Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said would allow researchers at federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health to “take advantage of this exciting time in science to improve the lives of every American.”

The measures would authorize a new infusion of funding for the FDA and the NIH as well as streamline federal regulations for research that supporters say have bogged down scientist in mounds of paperwork.

The effort has been aided by a push from the Obama administration for a “moon shot” to cure cancer that is being spearheaded by Vice President Joe Biden, whose son Beau died last year from brain cancer.

Alexander said the bills his committee approved Wednesday were the product of 50 proposals that were offered by senators in both parties. He said the measures could be rolled into a companion bill for Upton’s 21st Century Cures Act, which the House overwhelmingly approved last summer, providing a rare opportunity for legislative progress in a contentious presidential election season.

“If we succeed this year, I believe it will be the most important bill that Congress enacts this year,” Alexander said.

Senate Health committee Democrats were equally optimistic about the prospects for a high-profile measure to boost federal medical research this year, although they grumbled about the lack of a funding hike so far for the agencies.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, said the measures being voted on Wednesday “could lead to life-saving medical breakthroughs (and) better care and new treatments for patients across the country.

“Members of this committee have found common ground on ways to strengthen our nation’s health IT infrastructure, support the next generation of scientists and researchers and help incorporate patient feedback into FDA decision making, just to name a few,” said Murray, the top-ranking Democrat on the panel.

But she cautioned that “there is much more we need to do in addition” before the measures can be passed by the full Senate.

“Before this bill does come to the floor, we need an agrement on how we’re going to boost mandatory investments in the NIH and the FDA,” she said, citing examples such as the “lack of diversity in clinical trials that are currently being conducted by federal researchers.

“If we want all patients to benefit from medical advances, we need to make sure clinical trials look as diverse as our country,” Murray said.

Other committee members also complained that the measures do not go far enough to boost funding for the NIH and FDA.

“I think we should do everything we can to cut red tape in government, but the main reason we’re at risk of losing a generation of scientists and the next generation of innovation is not paperwork,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said.

“We will lose a generation of scientists because this Congress refused to adequately fund their work,” she continued. “For everyone who is touched by Alzheimer's or diabetes and for everyone who hopes for a cure for cancer or for a rare disease, the single most important thing Congress can do is increase funding for the hard, day-by-day work of our scientists.”

The original 21st Century Cures initiative, crafted by House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Upton, R-St. Joseph, and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, aims to speed the discovery, development and delivery of life-saving drugs and devices for diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

The landmark 21st Century Cures Act would expedite federal review of new medical treatments and devices and provide $550 million to the Food and Drug Administration over five years to reform and modernize programs and $8.7 billion for the National Institutes of Health.

Upton said in a joint statement with Reps. DeGette, Joseph Pitts, R-Pa., Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and Gene Green, D-Texas, the Senate’s votes on Wednesday were a positive sign for the prospects of a potential compromise between the chambers on improvements to medical research funding and regulations.

“Time is short for millions of patients, and we are grateful to Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray for their diligence and hard work in putting together a companion to 21st Century Cures,” the lawmakers said. “The effort to deliver #CuresNow is not Republican or Democrat, but something we can only achieve together.”

The initiatives in Upton’s House measure would be funded in part by drawing down and selling excess crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve; adjusting the timing of pre-payments to prescription drug sponsors through Medicare Part D; and limiting Medicaid reimbursement rates for durable medical equipment.

Critics of the legislation have argued it puts too much pressure on the FDA to lower its standards for evaluating new drugs and treatments and could put vulnerable patients at risk.

Alexander said the potential benefits of the improvements to medical research are too important to pass up, although he admitted “we have some work to do on other issues to finish our work.”

“The House has done its job. We’ve done most of ours. The president and the administration have been very constructive in working with us on the remaining issues, and Sen. (Mitch) McConnell says if we get completed, he’ll put it on the floor,” he said.

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing