- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Groundbreaking pharmaceuticals could get a speedier path to approval by the federal government under a bill Congress cleared Wednesday that also earmarks $1 billion to tackle America’s opioid epidemic.

Dubbed 21st Century Cures, the bipartisan legislation passed 94-5 in the Senate, following a similarly lopsided vote in the House and strong endorsement from President Obama.

“This bill will make a big difference, and I look forward to signing it as soon as it reaches my desk,” Mr. Obama said in a statement following passage.

The $6.3-billion package designates nearly $5 billion for the National Institutes of Health to accelerate research into major diseases, including $1.8 billion for Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s “moonshot” project on cancer, and $500 million for the Food and Drug Administration to make its approval process more efficient.

It doles out $1 billion in state grants to combat opioid addiction — a key priority for Mr. Obama — and provides money for mental health treatment and suicide prevention, while establishing a new assistant secretary for mental health at the Department of Health and Human Services.

Those provisions stemmed from the GOP’s push to address gun violence after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in late 2012.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hailed the Cures package as “one of the most meaningful bills we’ll pass this year.”

“This medical innovation bill will help foster solutions when it comes to heartbreaking illnesses like Alzheimer’s, opioid addiction, mental health disorders and cancer — heartbreaking illnesses that affect our family, and friends, and constituents,” the Kentucky Republican said.

Mr. Obama echoed that theme, saying the bipartisan achievement “is a reminder of what we can do when we look out for one another.”

Yet progressives such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, balked at the bill, saying will help drug companies speed their products to market while doing nothing to help consumers struggling with skyrocketing prescription-drug prices.

Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both of Oregon, also voted “no,” as did Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican.

New spending in the bill is paid for with $3.5 billion from Obamacare’s prevention and public health fund, as President-elect Donald Trump vows to repeal and replace the health care law, plus tweaks to Medicare payments and the sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The administration wasn’t thrilled with those offsets, known in Washington-speak as “pay-fors,” but it backed the legislation, anyway, saying its benefits outweighed the drawbacks.

“Not everyone’s satisfied with the funding mechanism, but we’re all voting for it, because it’s such an important bill,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican who championed the legislation.

That groundswell of support produced a poignant moment late Monday, as senators named the bill’s cancer provisions after Mr. Biden’s son, Beau, who died from the disease last year.

Mr. Biden presided over the chamber as senators voted to advance the bill, cuing up final passage Wednesday.

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