Policy

‘Cures’ Research Package Draws Strong Bipartisan Vote

Measure’s Senate prospects deemed positive

Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan and Diana DeGette of Colorado high-five Max Schill, 6, from Williamstown, N.J., after the House voted in favor of an earlier version of the 21st Century Cures Act in July 2015. Upton and DeGette spearheaded the bill. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The House Wednesday night approved, 392-26, a sweeping biomedical research package that also aims to overhaul the mental health system and make targeted changes to Medicare.

Representatives passed an earlier version of the legislation, known as 21st Century Cures, last year, only to see it get delayed in the Senate over disagreements on mandatory funding for the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, among other things.

The revised measure is expected to have an easier path in the Senate this time, according to lobbyists and aides. The White House on Tuesday said it “strongly supports” the bill. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee said the chamber would vote on the package early next week.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the HELP committee, said her colleagues are “getting very excited” about the bill.

“I think there’s been a lot of good changes made over the last 24 hours that makes me feel a lot more confident,” she said Wednesday.

One of the changes sought by Democrats and Republicans alike was to strike a provision related to federal disclosure requirements for physicians. The language in the updated bill would have exempted doctors from reporting certain compensation they received from pharmaceutical and medical device companies. That provision was dropped after opposition from Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, and others.

[Breaking Down the 21st Century Cures Act Vote]

Democrats were also able to add language that would direct money to combat opioid abuse to the states with the highest need.

Unlike the earlier bill, the House measure has no language protecting drugmakers’ patents for longer periods. And while the previous bill would have provided $8.75 billion in funding for the NIH over five years, updated language released last week would provide $4.8 billion over a decade for specified projects within the agency, including President Barack Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative and cancer “moonshot” program.

The new legislation would also provide $500 million over nine years for the FDA. It would also provide $1 billion to the states to help fight the opioid epidemic.

Offsets for the bill would come mainly from the federal Strategic Petroleum Reserve and a fund created in the 2010 health care overhaul to promote disease prevention and public health.

To accommodate the concerns of Republicans in both chambers, sponsors revised a funding mechanism so that dollars would be set aside in what are referred to as “innovation” funds. Appropriators would then need to approve withdrawals from those accounts each year.

The change was met with some backlash from Democrats in both chambers.

“This bill authorizes the NIH for a quarter of the funding that was in the original bill that was passed in the House last year,” Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern said during a Rules Committee hearing on Tuesday.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, on Monday, also blasted the Cures package as a giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry.

“When American voters say Congress is owned by big companies, this bill is exactly what they are talking about,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in a speech on the Senate floor. Senate Republicans have “let Big Pharma hijack the Cures bill. This final deal has only a tiny fig leaf of funding, for NIH and for the opioid crisis,” she said.

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