Senators advance medical cures bill, push for more funding

Senators advance medical cures bill, push for more funding

The Senate Health Committee on Wednesday advanced a final round of medical innovation bills as lawmakers intensify their push for a deal on funding medical research. 

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The panel advanced five bills aimed at speeding up Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of new drugs and devices. The measures will be combined with several other bills to become the Senate’s version of the House-passed 21st Century Cures Act. 

But a crucial element of the bill still remains to be worked out: new funding for medical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which Democrats have made a dealbreaker. 

The NIH funding could go to initiatives like the Obama administration's “moonshot” to cure cancer, and the FDA reforms are aimed at speeding up the approval of treatments, particularly for rare diseases. 

Both sides expressed optimism they could work out a deal on how much mandatory NIH funding to provide and how to pay for it. The starting point for those negotiations is the House bill’s number of roughly $9 billion over five years.

Lobbyists say they have seen more hopeful signs coming from the committee recently about the likelihood of a deal, though the funding issue remains unfinished.  

Chairman Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate MORE (R-Tenn.) said he and the top Democrat, Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayBiden signs four bills aimed at helping veterans On The Money — Biden sticks with Powell despite pressure Senators call for Smithsonian Latino, women's museums to be built on National Mall MORE (Wash.), are “making progress” toward a deal. 

Murray said at the markup that she is “very hopeful” a deal can be reached but made clear it is not in hand yet. 

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren calls on big banks to follow Capital One in ditching overdraft fees Crypto firm top executives to testify before Congress Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker won't seek reelection MORE (D-Mass.) has been a leader in the push for more NIH funding. She said Wednesday she is “optimistic” a deal can be reached.

“If this Congress is serious about medical innovation, then we have to get serious about more funding for medical research,” she said. 

Alexander told The Hill on Monday a deal could come next week, though that is one of the more optimistic forecasts. 

He said Wednesday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCongress averts shutdown after vaccine mandate fight House sets up Senate shutdown showdown Biden says he doesn't believe a government shutdown will happen MORE (R-Ky.) told him the bill will get to the floor if a deal is reached. “He has not said when, but he said he will,” Alexander said.

Senate floor time, however, is soon expected to be consumed by appropriations measures.

The panel is working with the Finance Committee to find ways to offset new NIH funding. Alexander said he has been working with Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchLobbying world Congress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears MORE (R-Utah), and recently met with the Finance panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenSenate parliamentarian looms over White House spending bill Democrats push tax credits to bolster clean energy Five reasons for concern about Democrats' drug price control plan MORE (Ore.), and Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell. 

Aside from the NIH funding issue, the health panel on Wednesday advanced five other bills related to FDA and NIH reforms. 

Some of the FDA reforms have drawn concerns that they could lower safety standards by speeding up drug approvals too quickly, but Democrats have been able to win many changes to help alleviate these worries.

One bill advanced by the committee Wednesday that was narrowed is the Promise for Antibiotics and Therapeutics for Health Act, which allows for faster FDA approval for drugs aimed at serious conditions or unmet needs. 

The panel also advanced a bill aimed at allowing the FDA to retain productive employees and pay them more, as well as a measure to cut down and streamline reporting and paperwork requirements.