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Zirpoli: Bipartisan Cures Act will help ordinary Americans

Last week, I wrote about the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016, or CARA, a bill Congress passed to address the significant opioid addiction crisis in the United States. CARA addresses addiction with a focus on prevention and treatment rather than the current war on drugs, which focuses on apprehension and incarceration. This is a significant shift in focus for this issue in the U.S. While the CARA bill had strong bipartisan support, it was never funded. Leaders from both parties supported the funding of CARA, but two bills to fund CARA with the $1 billion necessary to implement the act were twice rejected by Republican members of Congress.

Another bill that successfully worked its way through Congress, however, appears to provide the solution to this problem.

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On Tuesday, President Obama signed into law the 21st Century Cures Act, which, among other things, "speeds up approval of medical devices and drugs and sets up a sweeping medical research framework for everything from Alzheimer's disease to opioid addiction," according to Jim Spencer, writing for The Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Since Congress could not secure the votes to fund CARA, Republican leaders decided to include the $1 billion funding for CARA into the 21st Century Cures Act. It seems that the Cures Act includes enough must-haves for the pharmaceutical industry that members of Congress, including Republicans members, were being pushed by powerful lobbyists to support it. The strategy to fund CARA by slipping it into the Cures Act was a brilliant one and seems to have worked.

The total price for the Cures Act is $6.3 billion, including the $1 billion for CARA funding, as well as funding for the National Institutes of Health and the Mayo Clinic for research initiatives for cancer and Alzheimer's disease. The Cures Act also has a long list of requirements for the Federal Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other federal agencies. For example, some folks in Carroll County might be happy to hear that it requires the Department of Health and Human Services Department to "(1) conduct or support research on Lyme disease and other tick-borne diseases, (2) establish the Interagency Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Working Group, and (3) submit a plan for tick-borne disease research."

One of the most significant elements of the Cures Act is how it will speed up federal approval of new drugs, medical devices and treatments. This was the primary concern of those few members of Congress who voted against the bill — that it was too accommodating to the pharmaceutical companies who played a role in lobbying for the bill. Two senators who wanted to continue to work on the bill and voted against debate closure, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, were critical of the Cures Act's provisions that shortened the FDA approval process. Sen. Warren also objected that the act did not address the "skyrocketing prices of drugs."

The Cures Act received wide bipartisan support in the House and Senate. Once again, it is good to see both parties of Congress, as well as the White House, work together to do good things for ordinary Americans.

Also, in an act of grace and kindness — rare in Washington these days — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, renamed the cancer research part of the Cures Act in honor of Vice President Joe Biden's son, Beau Biden, who died of cancer last year at the age of 46. Vice President Biden has been leading a group of medical experts in what the Obama administration has called a "moon shot" to find a cure for cancer. Thanks to the Cures Act, it seems that the cancer research effort led by Biden will continue even after he leaves Washington.

Tom Zirpoli writes from Westminster. He is program coordinator of the Human Service Management graduate program at McDaniel College. His column appears Wednesdays. Email him at tzirpoli@mcdaniel.edu.

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