Few issues are as ripe for bipartisanship as fighting cancer, a disease that has touched nearly every family, including members of Congress .
"When you bring it down to a personal level, I think it’s a lot easier to get people on the bandwagon and get them cheerleading and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to beat this, and we need to do it today instead of tomorrow,'" said Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., whose daughter went through treatment last year for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Democrats are hoping that view will persuade Republicans to support Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr's “moonshot” task force, which aims to accelerate cancer research to the point that a decade’s worth of progress can be accomplished in half the time.
“His enthusiasm and persistence once he gets a hold of something is second to none,” Rep. Donald M. Payne Jr., D-N.J., who succeeded his father in Congress following his death from colorectal cancer in 2012.
Congress has tried to spur additional progress by increasing dollars for the National Institutes of Health. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., an ovarian cancer survivor and ranking member of the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee, helped secure an additional $619 million for NIH in the omnibus spending bill last year, $195 million of which the administration is using for cancer-related activities to help launch the “moonshot.”
Biden’s effort aims to identify new ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer by accelerating research efforts, enhancing access to data and facilitating collaboration among scientists, doctors, patients, biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies and philanthropies.
“There’s been tremendous work done by so many organizations but the problem is that it’s scattered,” said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., a breast cancer survivor. “Imagine what we can do if we pool all the resources and all the focuses together in one coordinated effort.”
Biden has begun reaching out to some members of Congress, including DeLauro. She’s excited about the "moonshot" effort but has a lot of questions.
“What are we looking to try to accomplish?” she asked. “And what kind of money are we talking about? I don’t know. I think that’s why this is in the listening stages.”
In fiscal 2017, the administration has requested $755 million in mandatory funding for new cancer-related research activities at NIH and the Food and Drug Administration. DeLauro and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who also serves on the subcommittee, said they would prefer funding remain on the discretionary side of the budget but find there’s bipartisan support for additional funding this year for cancer research.
“We have a lot of money in the budget if we prioritize,” McCarthy said, but noted that may not be the solution.
“We should drill down, look at where’s the best synergy of where we can be of assistance,” he added. “I’ve found out that if we knock down a few barriers, things can happen faster.”
McCarthy, who has briefly discussed the “moonshot” effort with the vice president, said he sees Biden’s task force as a complement to the 21st Century Cures Act the House passed last July with overwhelming support from both parties.
The measure, which a Senate committee has been marking up in pieces, would provide dedicated funding to NIH and FDA, encourages researchers to use patient-based data in the development of treatments, and creates economic incentives for development of new drugs. The bill targeted cancer and rare diseases such as valley fever, which is prevalent in McCarthy’s district.
Long hopes that Biden will use his clout to persuade the Senate to pass the cures act. “He’s always been kind of a natural born salesman, and I think that’s what you’ve got to do,” he said. “You’ve got to sell the Congress on it. You’ve got to sell the American public on it.”
Rep. Leonard Lance, R-N.J., who lost his mother to cancer when he was 12, said he hopes the “moonshot” effort will also help resolve the debate over how long drug manufacturers should be able to market new medicines exclusively.
Lance has a bill, which he unsuccessfully tried to get included in 21st Century Cures, to “hasten the process to bring to market medicines for rare diseases, all within the confines of the highest degree of safety.”
Lance has made cancer prevention and awareness one of his top priorities in Congress and has partnered with Democrats on many bills.
“These issues, not only are they bipartisan,” he said, “they are really nonpartisan.”
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