In Congress, a Bipartisan Victory for American Health

Congressional Republicans and Democrats in Congress last week came together to pass the 21st Century Cures Act, and President Obama has now signed it into law. It is legislation worthy of support from the American people.

Amounting to $6.3 billion, the act is relatively small in terms of total expenditures by federal standards. But by offsetting much of that figure with cuts to Obamacare’s wasteful Prevention and Public Health fund, the act avoids billions in new government debt.

The act has a number of key components that will help Americans lead healthier lives.

First and most important, the 21st Century Cures Act will speed up the approval process for new drugs. This development is crucial. Too many Americans either suffer or die because they cannot access drugs or medical devices that would otherwise help them. As one of the key sponsors of the legislation, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), explained, “Of the 10,000 known diseases — 7,000 of which are rare — there are treatments for only 500.’’

Today, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) takes too long to approve new medicines. That needs to change. And now it will. While the bill’s reforms are complicated, their cumulative impact should expedite approval for the most promising drugs and devices.

“Of the 10,000 known diseases — 7,000 of which are rare — there are treatments for only 500’’ – U.S. Rep. Fred Upton

The legislation gives special attention to treatments that could help children. But the act would also increase scrutiny of existing treatments so as to guide the approval process for future treatment. Going forward, the FDA would put the best drugs on the fast track for approval. The FDA’s own statistics show that its decision timeline has slowed over the last two years. That has a direct correlation with lives.

Second, the legislation provides around $500 million in new funding to combat opioid drug abuse, which has grown into a national emergency. Again, while the sums involved are not massive, they would help rural areas lacking treatment options.

The law also provides three targeted investments for medical research.

The first is Vice President Joe Biden’s “cancer moonshot,” which encourages collaboration among researchers and investing in hopeful new cancer treatment areas. We all know someone who has suffered from cancer, but with time, lives that would once have been lost early may be lived fully. Writing in a home-state paper, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) praised his Democratic co-sponsor, Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Working together, he said, Republicans and Democrats had delivered “a Christmas miracle.”

Heartfelt respect prospered in the course of drafting the bill. In one poignant moment, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced an amendment to name the bill’s cancer section after Beau Biden, the vice president’s son who died from cancer in 2015. McConnell’s words and the vice president reaction are worth watching.

The other investments involve $1.5 billion each for the BRAIN and precision medicine initiatives.

The BRAIN initiative will fund new mapping techniques to help us better understand how the brain works. The idea is that this research will bring new treatments to those with brain-related injuries. It is also likely to help veterans who suffered traumatic brain wounds in combat.

The precision medical initiative would involve 1 million volunteers providing their genetic data to researchers. The research teams will then use that database to seek new treatments for everyone.

Still, there are other elements to the legislation. It would expand access to — and encourage best practices in — mental health treatment options. It also reforms the criminal justice system’s approach to mental health. These developments are good news for many in the nation. As I’ve noted, the U.S. health care system has been far too slow here.

Ultimately, however, the best thing about the 21st Century Cures Act is what it shows about the possibilities of governance. When politicians put the national interest first, they can accomplish great things together. In the coming years, Republicans should preach this mantra with vigor. If they do, better days are ahead.

Tom Rogan is a foreign policy columnist for National Review, a domestic policy columnist for Opportunity Lives, a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets.