Congress has passed a sweeping biomedical innovation bill that President Obama has said he will sign. The bill provides the National Institutes of Health with $4.8 billion in extra money over 10 years to support three of the Obama administration’s biomedical research initiatives, although this funding has to be approved annually.
Yesterday, the Senate passed the “21st Century Cures Act” by a vote of 94 to 5, following the House’s similarly overwhelming 392 to 26 approval of the bill on Nov. 30. Today, congressional leaders held a signing ceremony and sent the bill to the president.
As reported in FYI #150, among numerous other research-related provisions, the bill provides $4.8 billion over 10 years to the National Institutes of Health in support of the Obama administration’s Cancer Moonshot, BRAIN, and Precision Medicine Initiatives. Allocations of this money will have to be approved through the annual appropriations process, although this spending will not count against caps on discretionary spending currently set in law.
President Obama applauded the legislation’s passage and indicated he will sign the bill. In a written statement he remarked,
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. The bipartisan passage of the 21st Century Cures Act is an example of the progress we can make when people from both parties work together to improve the health of our families, friends and neighbors.
Vice President Joe Biden, whose son Beau Biden died of brain cancer last year, has led the Cancer Moonshot effort since Obama announced it in his State of the Union address this year. As the vice president is also the president of the Senate, Biden opted to preside over the chamber during part of the floor debate on the bill. While he was doing so, the Senate adopted an amendment to rename a portion of the bill the “Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot.”
An initial version of the bill which passed the House last year would have provided NIH with close to twice as much money in half the amount of time, and spending these funds would not have required annual approval. Because the funding allocations in the final bill are no longer mandatory, some lawmakers have expressed concern that the initiatives ultimately may not be funded at the levels promised or that the money could be used in lieu of rather than in addition to future increases to NIH’s base budget.
However, at the signing ceremony held today, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) noted that she received a letter from Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) “promising that Congress will meet its responsibility to robustly fund these commitments in the years ahead, not just in the 2017 appropriation. Accelerating the development of cures and protecting the health and safety of the American people depends on fully funding the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and the NIH.” Pelosi underscored her support for the funding provisions of the bill earlier in her remarks: "Where there is scientific opportunity, I think we have a moral responsibility to allocate resources. That’s part of what this legislation does."
Another indication of Congress’s intent to follow through on these funding promises is that a stop-gap measure to fund the government through April 2017 that the House passed today includes $352 million extra for NIH via the account established by the Cures Act. A stop-gap funding measure must be signed into law before midnight on Friday or parts of the government will be forced to shut down.
Overall, many members of both parties hailed the bill as a significant feat made possible through bipartisan negotiation. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the lead Senate Republican sponsor of the bill, summarized the achievement by drawing a parallel with the K-12 education overhaul law he spearheaded last year:
For the second consecutive year, the Senate is sending the President another Christmas miracle for his signature. Last year, it was the Every Student Succeeds Act, and this time, it’s the 21st Century Cures Act—a bill that will help virtually every American family.