21st Century Cures Heads to the Senate

With bipartisan support, the 21st Century Cures Act was passed on the floor of the House of Representatives by a vote of 344-77 after overcoming a variety of political challenges.  This bill provides $1.86 billion per year in mandatory funding for the National Institutes of Health from fiscal 2016 to FY20 through an innovation fund and seeks to streamline the approval process for drugs from the Food and Drug Administration.

With House passage of Cures, all eyes are on the Senate to deliver medical cures legislation. In January the Chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Sen. Richard Burr, R – N.C., released the “Innovation for Healthier Americans” report to begin work to modernize development and review of medical discoveries. Sen. Alexander intends to deliver legislation in a “parallel track” that they can “combine with 21st Century Cures and send to the president’s desk.”

Preceding the momentum initiated by the House passage of Cures, Senators Lindsey Graham, R – S.C. and Richard Durbin, D – Ill, launched the Senate National Institutes of Health Caucus. Sen. Graham said the purpose of the NIH Caucus was to “shine a light on what you [the NIH] do, inform the American tax payer that this is a great return on investment.” The Senate has already shown their resolve to increase funding for NIH when Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies subcommittee released their fiscal 2016 appropriations bill. The bill would fund the NIH at $2 billion above current funding levels. And yet it is not clear how the interest of the NIH Caucus in biomedical research funding will translate to support for Cures-like legislative action.

Complementary to the conversation in the Senate HELP committee, Chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, hosted a hearing Tuesday on “Unlocking the Cures for America’s Most Deadly Diseases”  to explore incentivizing cure development. Sen. Cruz called for the federal government to spend more money on biomedical research to cure six costly diseases – heart disease, cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. Sen. Cruz said “We’re spending over $1.1 trillion a year in treatment costs, and we’re investing collectively about $9.9 billion in medical research. Does that ratio seem appropriate, not only in terms of dollars and cents, but also in terms of the human lives that are dealing with the terrible consequences?”

Ultimately, the Senate version of Cures-like legislation will emerge from the Senate HELP committee under the direction of Sen. Alexander and ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington. It is unclear what part the NIH Caucus and the Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness will play in delivering such a bill from the Senate. But legislators are rife with enthusiasm for increasing biomedical research funding and streamlining FDA regulations to deliver cures to patients.

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