The House overwhelmingly backed broad legislation Tuesday to increase federal support for medical research, advancing a long-anticipated bill that is expected to clear the Senate soon and get President Obama’s signature.
The $6.3-billion bill — known as the 21st Century Cures Act — attracted strong bipartisan support, with 218 Republicans and 174 Democrats voting for it, despite warnings from some consumer groups that the hastily assembled bill would jeopardize patient safety.
The 392-26 House vote also rewarded years of lobbying by patient advocates and powerful industries, including drug manufacturers.
“Millions of cancer patients, survivors and their families are one step closer to accelerated progress in new diagnostic tools and improved cancer treatments,” American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network President Chris Hansen said after the vote.
And it would give the Food and Drug Administration an additional $500 million to streamline its review of new drug therapies.
The sprawling legislation also includes provisions that would advance federal initiatives that have languished over the last several years, including new funding to combat the opioid epidemic, which public health departments have been crying out for all year.
Other parts of the bill would support steps designed to strengthen the nation’s mental health system, including better coordinating research into treatment and supporting community efforts to reduce homelessness and keep mentally ill patients out of the criminal justice system.
Advocates have been urging many of these steps for years, though they also say substantial new funding is needed. The bill passed Wednesday would not provide that.
The legislation has also generated concerns among many consumer advocates, who have warned that provisions that would speed federal regulatory review of new drugs and medical devices could expose patients to new risks.
“While many harmful provisions have been improved or removed … there are still many provisions in the renegotiated bill that remain problematic for public health,” Public Citizen noted in a statement.
Several leading liberal lawmakers have also blasted the legislation for including what Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) this week called “corporate giveaways that will make drug companies even richer.”
“At a time when Americans pay, by far, the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs, this bill provides absolutely no relief for soaring drug prices,” he said.
The White House acknowledged that it has issues with parts of the legislation, but Obama nonetheless plans to sign it.
“As with any piece of legislation that is passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by a Democratic president, it’s going to require some compromise,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
Other healthcare industries, including hospitals and insurance companies, successfully lobbied for the bill to include arcane provisions that would shield them from cuts in what the federal Medicare program pays them.
Another provision favored by industry would exempt some payments that physicians receive from drug and device makers from federal reporting requirements designed to alert patients to potential conflicts of interest.
On the right, the conservative activist group Heritage Action for America opposed the bill for adding to federal spending.
But many experts believe the addition of new funding for medical research and regulatory review will speed the development of pathbreaking cures to diseases such as cancer.
“The bill translates recent progress in scientific understanding of disease mechanisms, data integration and analysis, and patient engagement to streamline and speed the development of medical treatments, while enabling a deeper understanding about their safety and effectiveness for particular patients,” former FDA commissioner Dr. Mark McClellan and Friends of Cancer Research founder Ellen Sigal wrote in a recent op-ed.
The bill’s hefty price tag is offset with cuts in Medicare payments for drug therapies and medical equipment, other spending reductions and the sale of 25 million barrels of oil from the nation’s strategic petroleum reserve.
The Senate is expected to take up the bill as soon as next week.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has called the bill “the most important legislation Congress will consider this year.”