Cures bill in jeopardy amid drug pricing push

Cures bill in jeopardy amid drug pricing push
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A medical cures bill is in jeopardy following congressional Democrats’ push for it to address high drug prices.

A coalition of liberal groups has come out against passage of the measure this year, further putting its future in doubt. 

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A spokesperson for Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a statement Thursday saying the bill, known as 21st Century Cures, “must include” policies to address high drug prices, raising questions about whether Republicans would agree to such additions and help pass the bill this year. 

The committee Democrats released the statement after 13 liberal groups, including the Center for American Progress and the AFL-CIO, sent a letter to both chambers Wednesday calling for the bill to be punted to next year, so it can also deal with the hot-button topic of drug prices. 

“Moving forward with this legislation now would be a missed opportunity to address unaffordable prescription drug prices,” the letter states. “There is no justification for moving forward with legislation that provides substantial benefits to the drug industry without asking for something in return.”

The 21st Century Cures bill is aimed at speeding up the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of new drugs and investing new funds in medical research. But the liberal groups view the measure as a favor to drug companies at a time when the pharmaceutical industry is facing a growing uproar over its prices.

Democrats agreed to the measure when it passed the House last year and opted not to demand drug-pricing measures, which would have jeopardized Republican support. Instead, Democrats were particularly favorable toward the $8.75 billion over five years in new medical research funding the bill included. 

After last year’s offsets were used up in other measures, both parties have been negotiating other ways to pay for a new version of the bill, which would move through the House and then on to the Senate this year.

But now, with the issue of drug pricing rising in prominence and following the letter from the liberal groups, Democrats are calling for drug pricing measures to be included. 

Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee are not completely ruling out agreeing to a bill this year, but they are calling for actions on drug pricing to be included, which would face a steep climb on the Republican side. 

"We continue to work closely with our Republican and Senate counterparts to find a way to proceed with a final Cures bill that Democrats can support,” said an Energy and Commerce Democratic spokesperson. “Any final bill must include policies that facilitate access to affordable drugs and do not exacerbate rising drug prices in this country while also allowing for innovation to help treat diseases.”

Still, the bill has backing from Republican leadership and is getting a strong push from its main sponsor, Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.).  

Democrats also have a reason to support it, because it could include funding for Vice President Biden’s cancer moonshot project. Energy and Commerce Democrats also stressed that point. 

“The final bill also must include Democratic funding priorities like the Vice President's Cancer Moonshot program,” the Democratic spokesperson said. 

Before Congress left town in September, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Overnight Health Care: McConnell offering bill to raise tobacco-buying age to 21 | NC gov vetoes 'born alive' abortion bill | CMS backs off controversial abortion proposal HR 1 brings successful local, state reforms to the federal level and deserves passage MORE (R-Ky.) called 21st Century Cures a “top priority” for the lame-duck session, and Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanFEC filing: No individuals donated to indicted GOP rep this cycle The Hill's Morning Report - Waiting on Mueller: Answers come on Thursday Paul Ryan joins University of Notre Dame faculty MORE (R-Wis.) expressed a similar sentiment. 

Asked if the Speaker still hopes to pass the bill before the end of the year, given that there could be less Democratic support now, Ryan’s office referred to his comments in September, when he called for completing work on the bill in November.

“When we return in November, I look forward to completing work on some very important key initiatives that just haven’t quite gotten over the finish line—Tim Murphy’s mental health reform, Fred Upton’s 21st-century Cures initiative,” Ryan said at the time. 

Asked to respond to the Democrats’ Thursday statement, and if they would be willing to include drug pricing measures, Republicans on the Energy and Commerce Committee said they are still working on the bill. 

"We're proud that the original 21st Century Cures Act that passed the House with overwhelming bipartisan support would deliver safe and affordable cures — and we continue working closely by the day with our House and Senate Republicans and Democrats counterparts, as well as the White House, to ensure the final package achieves these important goals,” said a committee spokesperson. “We are making great progress – and working together, we will follow through in delivering hope.”

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) is sure to oppose any effort to include drug pricing measures in the bill. 

“PhRMA opposes harmful proposals that would hurt patient access to needed medicines,” PhRMA spokeswoman Allyson Funk said when asked about the push to add drug pricing measures to the bill.

“We remain focused on and appreciate Congress’ continued interest in improving biomedical innovation and accelerating new treatments for patients.”