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GOP leaders predict House passage of medical research bill

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Republican leaders predicted that a compromise medical research bill will sail through the House on Wednesday, delivering victories for both parties and the White House despite complaints from some Democrats and consumer groups. (WPVI)

Republican leaders predicted that a compromise medical research bill will sail through the House on Wednesday, delivering victories for both parties and the White House despite complaints from some Democrats and consumer groups.

The legislation envisions spending $6.3 billion over the coming decade, including $4.8 billion for National Institutes of Health research. States would get $1 billion over the next two years for preventing and treating abuse of addictive drugs like opioids, a surging problem in red and blue states alike. The Food and Drug Administration would get $500 million to streamline approval processes for drugs and medical devices.

"The clock is ticking. Patients don't have time. They want answers, they want cures," Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told reporters before House debate began. He said he expected "a pretty big bipartisan vote" for the measure.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that following House approval, "The Senate will consider this measure and send it to the president's desk." That is expected to occur next week.

Democrats grumbled that though the bill designates money for research, drug approvals and opioids abuse over coming years, it fell short of what was needed and would take future legislation to actually provide those funds. They were also unhappy about savings to pay for those initiatives, chiefly $3.5 billion to be cut from a public health program in Obama's health care law, which the GOP aims to repeal in its entirety.

The Senate's No. 2 Democratic leader, Richard Durbin of Illinois, said the bill reflected "a warped sense of justice" by cutting public health programs to pay for research and said he was "totally underwhelmed" by its spending. He said the measure would likely pass.

The White House sent a letter to lawmakers late Tuesday voicing strong support for the measure, giving it a big boost toward passage. Addressing worries by some Democrats, the letter said administration officials would act swiftly "to ensure that the funds in the bill would be disbursed quickly and effectively so we can begin to address these important public health challenges."

Underscoring the measure's bipartisan support, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's top Democrat, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, said he'd vote for the bill, saying its provisions would ease government approval of drugs "without sacrificing any safety."

The measure also contains provisions bolstering federal mental health programs, though it provides little money for those changes. It has won strong backing from the drug and medical device industries.

GOP leaders have trumpeted the bill as a key achievement for the post-election, Republican-led Congress as lawmakers prepare for Donald Trump to replace President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Jan. 20. That looming transition has greatly reduced the leverage of Democrats, who would have preferred the bill to contain more money and greater consumer protections.

In two noteworthy wins for the White House, the bill includes $1.4 billion for Obama's precision medicine initiative, aimed at shaping treatments and care for people based on their genes and lifestyles. It has $1.8 billion for seeking a cure for cancer, a priority for Vice President Joe Biden, whose son Beau died of the disease last year.

Democrats and consumer groups were also upset with the streamlining of some Food and Drug Administration processes, including making it easier for pharmaceutical companies to win approval for some antimicrobial drugs and for fresh uses of some existing medicines.

Michael Carome, the director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, said that while he was happy for extra research and anti-drug funds, "For us, the bad things are not an acceptable trade-off."

Among those who've said they oppose the bill are two of the Senate's best-known populist figures, Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. They say it's a giveaway to drug companies.

In eleventh-hour talks, both sides agreed to remove language that would have exempted companies from publicly reporting education-related gifts to doctors, such as textbooks. Firms must reveal many payments they give physicians, which critics say encourage doctors to prescribe products made by those companies.
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