Senate looks for path forward on medical innovation bill

Senate looks for path forward on medical innovation bill
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The Senate health committee is looking for a way forward on its medical innovation bill despite thorny disagreements over new research funding and regulatory changes. 

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The committee on Tuesday advanced seven relatively narrow bipartisan bills around medical innovation, but the splintered approach came after lawmakers failed to forge a larger, bipartisan package after months of work. 

Chairman Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Higher Education Act must protect free speech Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 GOP senators divided on Trump trade pushback MORE (R-Tenn.) argued that passing this series of noncontroversial bills could help build momentum for a larger package that would be a companion to the House-passed 21st Century Cures Act, which seeks to speed up the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of new drugs and includes $8.75 billion over five years in new research funds for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

Alexander said the committee would vote on 50 relatively narrow, bipartisan proposals over the next few months, which would add up to a larger package. He said the contentious question of NIH funding, and how to pay for it, would be left to the full Senate once the package reaches the floor. 

However, the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayHillicon Valley: Washington preps for Mueller report | Barr to hold Thursday presser | Lawmakers dive into AI ethics | FCC chair moves to block China Mobile | Dem bill targets 'digital divide' | Microsoft denies request for facial recognition tech Dems introduce bill to tackle 'digital divide' Only four Dem senators have endorsed 2020 candidates MORE (D-Wash.), said there must be a commitment to mandatory NIH funding at the committee level and that the issue can't wait for the full Senate. 

“We cannot punt this to some vague promise to add funding later on,” added Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenJulián Castro: Trump should be impeached for trying to obstruct justice 'in very concrete ways' Poll: Biden tops Sanders nationally Pete Buttigieg: 'God doesn't have a political party' MORE (D-Mass.), echoing Murray's call for mandatory NIH funding. 

Figuring out some of the ways to pay for that funding might have to wait, given that both parties acknowledge there are few offsets within the health committee's jurisdiction. 

Given the disagreements over NIH funding and other issues, some senators in both parties cast doubt they can agree on a larger bill to send to the floor.

FDA changes are also controversial. 

Drug prices and the pharmaceutical industry have been an increasingly hot-button issue, and Warren accused Republicans of simply trying to aid the industry by lowering FDA regulatory standards. 

“Some Republicans seem to want to use this discussion as an opportunity to neuter the FDA,” Warren said. “Our goal should not be to weaken the standards so that giant corporations can increase their profits by selling dangerous or useless drugs to the American people.”

She said Democrats would agree to “reasonable changes” to improve the FDA’s approval process but not to gutting the agency. 

“I am very worried that this bigger effort is in jeopardy,” Warren said. 

Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrGOP senator: 'No problem' with Mueller testifying Collins backs having Mueller testify Graham says he's 'not interested' in Mueller testifying MORE (R-N.C.), a leading Republican voice on healthcare issues, fired back that companies need to be able to get a “return on investment.” 

“I think to some degree when we talk about people actually having a return on investment, we assume then that we’ve gotten into degradation of the approval process,” Burr said.

“If I didn’t believe it before this hearing, I do now,” Burr added. “There’s not going to be an innovation bill.”

Alexander is trying to overcome these fights. Importantly, Alexander said that he is willing to include mandatory NIH funding, as long as that funding is offset with reductions elsewhere and the new funding is targeted to particular initiatives. He mentioned Vice President Biden’s call to accelerate the pace of cancer research as one initiative worthy of this new mandatory funding. 

But Alexander acknowledged that not all Republicans are on board with mandatory NIH funding.

“A, There’s not enough money in our jurisdiction, and B, we don't have bipartisan agreement,” he said, explaining why the full Senate would need to resolve the dispute.

The narrower bills approved Tuesday are uncontroversial. They included a measure seeking to reduce documentation burdens for doctors around electronic health records, improve training for regulators at the FDA, and coordinate programs to help young researchers at NIH.  

Alexander said he still had confidence a larger bill could come out of the committee, despite the disagreements. 

“I cannot imagine the Senate missing its opportunity to join the House and president in this 21st Century Cures legislation because we're having an argument about how to fund something,” he said.