WASHINGTON – Republicans and Democrats put finishing touches Tuesday on a $6.3 billion medical research bill as GOP leaders prepared to try pushing the measure through the lame-duck Congress by next week. The White House said it backs the measure, all but ensuring its approval.
While Democrats and consumer groups were unhappy with parts of the legislation, it contained enough accomplishments for both sides that passage seemed likely. Government drug approvals would be accelerated, there would be more money for biomedical research — including on cancer, a priority for the White House and Vice-President Joe Biden — and there would be added funds for battling abuse of addictive drugs like opioids, a growing problem that plagues red and blue states alike.
In a letter to lawmakers, White House officials said the administration strongly supports the legislation and praised almost every aspect of it. It cited some problems, such as a need for more money to implement some of its requirements, but said, “This legislation offers advances in health that far outweigh these concerns.”
The House was planning to consider the 996-page package Wednesday, with Senate action expected next week.
“It’s a very important and attractive piece of legislation. I anticipate a big vote,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who chairs the Senate Health Committee.
In eleventh-hour talks, both sides said they had agreed to remove language that would have exempted companies from publicly reporting education-related gifts to doctors, such as textbooks. Firms must report many payments they give physicians, which critics say encourage doctors to prescribe products made by those companies.
Democrats had wanted stronger language to assure that the money the legislation makes available would actually be provided by future Congresses. They were also unhappy with provisions making it easier to get government approval to prescribe existing drugs for new uses, and with the measure’s cuts in President Barack Obama’s health care law and other programs, which would take effect immediately.
But with Donald Trump replacing a more supportive Obama in the White House in just two months, Democratic leverage to demand changes was limited.
In remarks Tuesday to the Senate, Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said there is “some angst” among Democrats about the bill and said he was expecting it to be changed, but was not specific.
The bill was drawing populist attacks from two of the Senate’s most liberal members, Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Sanders said Congress must “stand up to the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, not give them more handouts.” In a fierce Senate speech Monday, Warren called the bill “corrupt” and “very, very dangerous.”
The bill would let the Food and Drug Administration approve drugs and medical devices more quickly — which consumer groups say is dangerous.
It lays out plans for $4.8 billion in additional spending over the next decade for cancer, brain and other biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health; $1 billion for grants to states for drug abuse prevention and treatment over the next two years; and $500 million for the Food and Drug Administration to streamline its approval procedures. It would also bolster federal mental health programs.
To pay for the measure, the bill would cut a public health program in Obama’s health care law, trim some Medicare and Medicaid payments and sell oil from the government’s strategic petroleum reserve.
Lawmakers who pushed to delete the provision exempting public reports of some payments to doctors included Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and No. 3 Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York. Schumer is slated to be Senate minority leader in next year’s new Congress.