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House bill speeds drug approval, boosts fight against opioids and cancer

WASHINGTON – The House on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a $6 billion bill aimed at modernizing the approval process for prescription drugs while boosting funding to fight the opioid epidemic as well as the "cancer moonshot."

Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, had a hand in creating some of the measures included in the "21st Century Cures Act," which Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, lauded for the boost it could give researchers at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

The measure – which is soon expected to win approval in the Senate and be signed by the president – is an updated, compromise version of legislation the House first passed last year.

“I am proud to have had a role in crafting this landmark legislation,” Collins said. “Ensuring medical innovators have the funding and ability to do their jobs is crucial to helping the millions of Americans struggling with incurable diseases. This legislation has the ability to change people’s lives, and I could not be more excited about its passage.”

Many legislators had a hand in the bipartisan legislation, but Collins – a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee's Health Subcommittee – authored several provisions of the bill, making this his most significant legislative accomplishment in four years in Congress.

Those provisions:

  • Set up a way for the Food and Drug Administration to allow clinical trials of new medical treatments to proceed more quickly.
  • Increase the number of senior biomedical researchers the Food and Drug Administration can hire, while boosting their salaries to make them more competitive with private industry.
  • Allow child and adolescent psychiatrists to take part in the National Health Service Corps Loan Repayment Program, thereby encouraging them to practice in underserved areas such as rural Western New York.
  • Force states to publish an online directory of physicians that serve Medicaid patients.

Collins may have a vested interest in seeing the bill become law. He’s the largest shareholder in Innate Immunotherapeutics, an Australian drug research firm that currently has no drugs up for approval at the FDA, but that could someday.

Collins said he informed the House Ethics Committee of his investment in the drug research firm. He maintains that his interest in the drug company actually shows not a conflict of interest, but rather the business knowledge that he's been able to bring to Congress.

The bill that Collins helped write also sets aside $5 billion for primary medical research at the National Institutes of Health, along with $500 million for the FDA to speed up the drug approval process.

"Driving innovation forward will help get costs in check and get better, faster treatments to those in need of care," said Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning. "This bill is a win-win."

Collins stressed that the bill also includes several other provisions that could be important for Western New York. For example, it sets aside an additional $1 billion to combat the opioid crisis.

The president and his administration will decide how to parcel that money out to states, but some of it could eventually end up helping curb opioid abuse in Western New York.

"We have to do something," Collins said. "This is a crisis that is only getting worse."

In addition, the bill's medical research funding includes $1.8 billion for Vice President Joe Biden's "Cancer Moonshot" – a huge funding boost for cancer research that is likely to filter down to research centers across the country.

"Any additional funding for cancer research will obviously directly benefit Roswell Park," said Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat who also supported the bill.

The bill passed the House by a 392-26 margin and is expected to pass the Senate by the end of next week. In a statement of support, the Obama administration said President Barack Obama would sign the bill and start parceling out the funds as soon as possible.

Obama supports the measure despite some opposition among liberal Democrats, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who said the bill is a giveaway to drug companies that could weaken patient protections.

Rep. Jim McDermott, R-Washington, agreed.

"The weakening of the FDA in protecting the public is the central problem with this bill," he said.

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