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).

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While that bill is moving forward, Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrFormer Senate intel aide indicted for perjury makes first court appearance The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Washington's week of 'we'll see' Former Senate Intel aide indicted in DOJ leak case 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 Alexander13 GOP senators ask administration to pause separation of immigrant families IBM-led coalition pushes senators for action on better tech skills training Dems seek to leverage ObamaCare fight for midterms 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 MurrayIBM-led coalition pushes senators for action on better tech skills training Members of Congress demand new federal gender pay audit Overnight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Health chief grilled on Trump drug pricing plan, ObamaCare case 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?”