Federal health bill aimed at opioid abuse moves forward

Margarita Cambest

The U.S. Senate gave its final stamp of approval Wednesday on a bipartisan health care bill that could become law before the end of the year.

The $6.3 billion 21st Century Cures Act passed, 94-5, with little opposition from legislators. It aims to speed up the approval of drugs and medical devices, provide funding for the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration and lay out research initiatives for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. The law also would  give $1 billion in state grants to combat opioid abuse and addiction over the next two years.

Sens. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Bob Casey, D-Pa., both voted in favor of the bill in an 85-13 procedural vote Monday night and again on Wednesday.

In a statement, Casey pointed to $1 billion in state grants to fight opioid abuse as key for Pennsylvania. Opioid and heroin abuse is a growing problem in the commonwealth, and the Pennsylvania Department of Health has called it an epidemic, on trend with national increases in opioid abuse.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania

“The crisis of opioid addiction gripping our nation knows no bounds," Casey said. "It impacts families everywhere, from cities to suburban communities to rural areas and everywhere in between. While this legislation will help states to further respond to this epidemic, we still have more work to do.  I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to continue to address this crisis.”

Toomey also praised the bill's passage.

In this file photo, a nasal administered dose of Narcan, a heroin overdose antidote, is seen in a school nurse's office. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

“As a supporter of medical research, I was pleased to vote for the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act today," he said in a statement. "This is an exciting time in medicine as scientists across Pennsylvania are researching cutting-edge treatments that could save millions of lives — such as using the body’s own immune system to beat cancer as well as new ways to tackle Alzheimer’s disease."

The House: The 900-page health care legislation passed in the U.S. House on Nov. 30. After the House vote, the Obama administration released a statement praising the decision and urged the Senate to also pass the bill. 

Rep. Scott Perry, R-Dillsburg, voted in favor of the House bill, which passed 392-26. In a news release, Perry said the bill would save lives at no additional cost to the American taxpayer.

“It also saves money by developing cures rather than continuing to pass on the heavy cost of chronic illness to consumers through health-insurance premiums,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry arrives to the Republican Committee election watch, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2016. John A. Pavoncello photo

The law would provide the National Institutes of Health with $4.8 billion over 10 years, which could help research universities and medical centers in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation. However, much of that appropriation is left to future Congresses to fund.

Detractors: Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., voted against the bill after his proposed amendments failed to make it in  the final version of the legislation.

“I agree with many measures in this bill,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement. “The 21st Century Cures Act will help accelerate the discovery and development of new treatments for patients. It provides funding for cancer research at the NIH, grants money to states to fight opioid abuse, helps individuals and families in mental health crisis and improves the FDA’s review of life-saving drugs for patients.”

However, the Bucks County congressmen and other vocal critics say it lacks oversight on what could be faulty or dangerous medical devices and could limit patient rights.

As law, Fitzpatrick said the 21st Century Cures Act would make funds available for medical research, precision medicine, an initiative to map the human brain and the "Cancer Moonshot" task force headed by Vice President Joe Biden, but it needed more to protect consumers. Specifically, he said his constituents were harmed by faulty medical devices. The act would speed up the process by which the Food and Drug Administration approves "breakthrough" medical technologies and, in his opinion, allow more of these “faulty medical devices” to get to market faster.

“At a minimum, there needs to be a congressional hearing on post-market surveillance at the FDA,” Fitzpatrick said.

Other opponents of the act include Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and former presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who take issue with the money spent by pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists to get the legislation passed.

In a Senate address Monday night, Warren called the included provisions for funding the NIH and the opioid crisis “a tiny fig leaf of funding.”

“Why bother with a fig leaf in the Cures bill,” she asked. “Why pretend to give any money to NIH or opioids? Because this funding is political cover for huge giveaways to giant drug companies.”

An analysis by Kaiser Health News found 58 pharmaceutical companies, 24 device companies, 60 schools and 36 hospitals lobbied in favor of the bill. It now moves to President Barack Obama's desk, where he is expected to sign it into law.