Senators plan rival bill on medical cures

Senators plan rival bill on medical cures
© Greg Nash

The Senate is likely to produce its own version of legislation that would smooth the path for new medical cures, two Republican senators said Tuesday.

Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week plan to mark up a bipartisan bill called 21st Century Cures. The legislation is aimed at streamlining the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) process for approving new drugs and treatments, and would increase research funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

While that bill is moving forward, Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrOvernight Finance: Senate rejects Trump immigration plan | U.S. Bancorp to pay 0M in fines for lacking money laundering protections | Cryptocurrency market overcharges users | Prudential fights to loosen oversight Senators introduce bill to help businesses with trade complaints Our intelligence chiefs just want to tell the truth about national security MORE (R-N.C.) said at an event hosted by The Hill and sponsored by PhRMA on Tuesday that the Senate would not just pass the House version. 

“I think that the Senate will produce our own bill,” Burr said. While the timeline is still being worked out, Burr said he does not expect a bill for a matter of months. 

“I applaud the House’s efforts with the Cures Act,” Burr said, but added, “the Senate never moves quickly.”

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a doctor, said at The Hill’s event that the fall would be a “reasonable” timeline for the Senate’s bill, though it could slip. 

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who is leading the House cures effort, has said he wants legislation passed this year. 

In the Senate, Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Health Care: Trump health chief backs CDC research on gun violence | GOP negotiators meet on ObamaCare market fix | Groups sue over cuts to teen pregnancy program GOP negotiators meet on ObamaCare market fix 30 million people will experience eating disorders — the CDC needs to help MORE (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Health Committee, is leading the legislative push and launching a working group with the ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn Murray30 million people will experience eating disorders — the CDC needs to help Mulvaney remarks on Trump budget plan spark confusion Overnight Finance: Mulvaney sparks confusion with budget remarks | Trump spars with lawmakers on tariffs | Treasury looks to kill 300 tax regs | Intel chief's warning on debt MORE (Wash.).

Alexander has asked NIH and FDA officials to present him with recommendations on how to cut red tape in hopes of incorporating their suggestions into the bill. 

Increasing funding for NIH has received support on both sides of the aisle. The House bill would increase funding by around $5 billion, to around $35 billion, by 2018, and would also include $10 billion over five years in mandatory spending that can help get around spending caps. This funding helped bring Democrats on board in the House. 

“NIH is an essential part of what we do,” John Castellani, president and CEO of PhRMA, said at the event. He added that after NIH’s basic research, “our industry then does its job,” with $51.2 billion research and development spending last year.

Cassidy and Burr expressed a cautious willingness to increase funding for the NIH.

“I'd love to see an increase the NIH budget as well, but I wouldn't expect different outcomes if we didn't see these other issues change,” Burr said, referring to reforms of the FDA approval process. 

Paying for the bill is also an issue. 

Cassidy said economic growth would help fill up the government’s coffers and make room for the funding. 

“You can't separate our ability to fund priorities like NIH from the overall state of the economy,” Cassidy said. 

Burr noted that savings from less spending on diseases could be used to help fund the legislation, and Cassidy likewise made the point that spending on Alzheimer’s alone is at $200 billion and rising. 

The House bill has not yet worked out the pay-fors, which is a major obstacle, but Cassidy expressed hope for a bipartisan agreement.

Citing the “cautionary tale” of the Affordable Care Act, he said, “if you force something through on a partisan basis, it continues in rancor and its effectiveness is diminished.”

Asked if Democrats would be involved, he replied, “Why wouldn’t they be?”