The sweeping, $6.3 billion 21st Century Cures Act, designed to create a 10-year pool of money for precision medicine development and social health initiatives, gained overwhelming Senate approval Wednesday and goes next to President Obama, who has said he will sign the bill.
The Senate vote was 94-5 on the much-debated piece of legislation to fund the National Institutes of Health, Vice President Joseph Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, development of an Alzheimer’s cure, and the battle against the opioid-abuse epidemic. The measure was approved by the House last week by a vote of 392-26.
The bill has its supporters, who are excited about the huge incentives for advances in cancer drugs and medical devices, and critics, who content the legislative package is a “handout” to the pharmaceutical industry that weakens the FDA’s oversight on new indications for existing drugs and medical device development. The bill would provide $480 million in annual funding for the NIH over 10 years.
President Obama has described the 21st Century Cures Act as a successful compromise, although he has said he is not fully content with some elements of the bill.
“We are now one step closer to ending cancer as we know it, unlocking cures for diseases like Alzheimer’s and helping people seeking treatment for opioid addiction finally get the help they need,” Obama said after the Senate vote.
The passing of this bill comes after years of negotiations in Congress. The 21st Century Cures Act would allocate $1.8 billion to support the Moonshot, which would speed up cancer discovery via more funding and collaboration among various groups. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that the Moonshot portion of the bill will be named after Biden’s son, Beau Biden, who died of a brain tumor last year.
In addition, the 21st Century Cures Act would include $1 billion to fight prescription drug and heroin abuse; $1.5 billion for the new ways to treat, cure, and prevent brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and epilepsy; and $1.5 billion for the Precision Medicine Initiative. It also includes bipartisan mental health reforms.
The initiative was spearheaded by Rep Fred Upton, (R-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee with the help of Rep Diana DeGette, (D-CO). “After three years, our legislative work is finally complete. 21st Century Cures is ready for the president,” Upton tweeted.
The president of ASCO, Daniel Hayes, MD, praised the Senate for passing the bill. “This landmark legislation will spur development and delivery of promising new treatments for patients,” Hayes said.
"As the world's leading professional organization representing over 40,000 physicians and other health-care professionals who care for people with cancer, we understand all too well the challenge of developing the treatments and cures that will make a difference to patients,” Hayes said. “Thankfully, due to breakthroughs in precision medicine and renewed federal commitment to cancer research, most patients with cancer have better treatment outcomes than ever before.”
Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) have been very outspoken in their opposition to the bill. Warren called it “extortion,” saying the “American people deserve a better deal.” Sanders said the bill does not do enough to curtail drug prices.