When lawmakers head back to Washington, D.C. this week, one of the votes they have ahead of themselves is the 21st Century Cures bill, legislation that is intended to spur the development of new medical treatments. The bill was updated the Friday after Thanksgiving, leaving many of the provisions of previous versions intact, but also adding language intended to improve America’s mental health system and dedicates $1 billion over the course of two years to help combat the opioid epidemic.
The updated package directs $4.8 billion in funding over a decade to the National Institutes of Health and includes $1.4 billion for President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative, $1.8 billion for Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer “moonshot” program, and $1.6 billion for a program focused on enhanced understanding of brain-related diseases like Alzheimer’s. The bill would be paid for mostly through sales of the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve and a fund created in the 2010 health care overhaul intended to promote disease prevention and public health.
The vehicle for the new bill will be existing legislation (HR 34) related to tsunami warning systems. Since the Senate has already passed an amended version of that bill, the package could be sent from the House back to the upper chamber and acted on relatively quickly. The vote is expected to take place on Wednesday, under suspension of the rules, preventing any amendments.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton of Michigan and Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the two main sponsors of the package, touted the bill as beneficial to virtually every American family. “What we have in the 21st Century Cures Act is an innovation game-changer, a transformational bill to bring our health infrastructure light years ahead to best match the incredible breakthroughs that are happening by the day,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement. “We look forward to swift and favorable consideration of the 21st Century Cures Act in both the House and Senate.”
Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., a vocal supporter of mental health changes, on Sunday released a statement praising the package. “I'm excited Republicans and Democrats have put politics aside and reached a compromise that will allow a mental health reform bill to pass side by side with major new funding to confront the nation's opioid crisis. Both parties needed to make concessions to get this deal done, but the deal that has been struck is good for patients and families. I hope we get it done,” Murphy said.
Key Provisions of the Bill
Measures related to the FDA largely remain intact from the previous House-passed bill. The biggest change is the addition of language to help speed the development of regenerative medicine, or treatments that are designed to help regrow damaged cells or tissues. Such a provision would give the FDA the ability to put some of these treatments through what’s known as “accelerated approval,” a pathway that allows companies to conduct clinical trials on smaller populations and requires follow-up studies once the drug is on the market.
The $1 billion to curb painkiller abuse would effectively grant President Obama’s budget request from February. Included in the funding is a bid to gather support from Democrats, as well as an acknowledgement that this year’s stalled appropriations process would not be adequate for funding the opioid response envisioned by the backers of an opioid abuse package signed into law this summer.
The bill’s section on mental health would make changes to the leadership structure at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and establish/reauthorize grants for state and community mental health services. It would give HHS tools to enhance compliance with parity laws, which require insurers that cover mental health to offer mental health benefits that are as valuable as other medical coverage.
The most notable additions are aspects of a bill from Sen. John Cornyn (S. 2002). Those provisions would offer grants to law enforcement and the judicial system to improve their capacities to deal with mental health problems. Lawmakers wound up dropping controversial language from Cornyn’s bill that would have restored gun rights to certain individuals who had been committed for mental health treatment.
The legislation also changes policies governing electronic medical records by directing the federal government to issue a voluntary model framework on the sharing of patients' health information, and creates a grant program to help develop a reporting system that would provide the government with more information about the use and security of electronic health records.
Inserted into the legislation is a provision from Congressman Defazio, Burgess, and Senator Barrasso to exempt applicable manufacturers from reporting payments made for continuing medical education sessions, medical journals, or textbooks. We tend to believe that the reporting requirements stifle access to important information and have a detrimental effect on continuing medical education (CME) programming.
This represents a smart tweak to the current regulation. Unlike the other categories under Open Payments, education represents the free exchange of ideas.
“This is about patient care — doctors need good information fast and this facilitates the process,” said John Kamp, who heads the Coalition for Healthcare Communication, a group of ad agencies and medical publishers. “I want my doctors to have information about whatever the latest science is saying.” He noted that the Food and Drug Administration is currently weighing rules for allowing companies to distribute information to physicians about unapproved uses of medicines.