House passes 21st Century Cures bill


A pared-down version of the 21st Century Cures Act passed the House Nov. 30 by an overwhelming 392-26 vote, setting the stage for a quick Senate vote on the compromise legislation.

H.R. 34 gained more support on the House floor than did a version of the legislation that passed the House in 2015. In order to gain that additional support and ensure Senate approval, funding for key biomedical research efforts – the BRAIN Initiative, the Cancer Moonshot, and the Precision Medicine Initiative – was reduced from $9.3 billion to $4.8 billion over 10 years. Further, those funds are not guaranteed but will need to be appropriated through the federal budget process.

U.S. Capitol Alicia Ault/Frontline Medical News
The legislation also provides $1 billion in grants to states over a 2-year period to help supplement opioid abuse prevention and treatment activities.

Other provisions include creation of an NIH program to support new researchers; funds to accelerate improved methods for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of tick-borne diseases; the development of a national neurologic condition surveillance system; and the establishment of a task force on research specific to pregnant and breastfeeding women.

“More women with chronic diseases are becoming pregnant, yet safe and effective medications to manage these ongoing conditions throughout their pregnancy and beyond are needed,” Mary Norton, MD, president of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, said in a statement. “This legislation is a great first step toward greater collaboration and communication among federal agencies and public stakeholders.”

The 21st Century Cures bill also “takes concrete steps to help women and families suffering from postpartum depression,” Thomas Gellhaus, MD, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said in a statement. “Postpartum depression is one of the most common medical complications following pregnancy. ... Cures expands state programs to better identify, treat, and support women and families at risk for or facing postpartum depression.”

The bill provides $500 million to the Food and Drug Administration to help the agency speed up the drug approval process, focusing on identifying biomarkers and developing targeted drugs for rare diseases. It also reauthorizes the pediatric rare disease priority review voucher program; requires drug companies to have a publicly accessible compassionate use policy for drugs treating serious or life-threatening conditions; and provides flexibility to get new antimicrobial drugs to market quickly.

Changes in the drug approval process were contentious during debate on the House floor.

“In its attempt to speed up the drug and device approval process, this legislation neglects the very people whom clinical trials are meant to help, that is, the patients,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said. “Rather than protect those who rely on the health care system, it reduces the already weak regulation on medical devices, allows drugs with only limited evidence of the drug’s safety and efficacy, and rushes the use of new and unproven antibiotics.”

Other legislators expressed disappointment at the bill’s mental health care provisions. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D-Mass.) said that his “real concerns with the legislation lie with the mental health reform proposals, which don’t go nearly far enough. Mental health parity is already the law, thanks to the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and the Affordable Care Act; but each study we read, Mr. Speaker, and each story we hear proves that insurance companies are skirting those rules.

“We need enforcement and transparency today,” Rep. Kennedy continued. “We need random audits before there have been violations, not after. We need insurers to publicly disclose the rates and reasons for denials in a way that patients and their families can understand, not in away that mental health advocates can’t even obtain. We need to increase Medicaid reimbursements in order to expand access to care, not to reduce them or roll back expansion.”

The pediatric provisions drew mixed reviews from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“The 21st Century Cures Act includes three new programs that, if funded, would improve infant and child mental health: one that supports behavioral and mental health integration into the pediatric primary care setting, one that increases screening and treatment for maternal depression, and one that enhances infant and early childhood mental health,” AAP President Benard Dreyer, MD, said in a statement. “Of additional note is a provision that incentivizes the certification of health information technology for use by pediatricians, and a provision that ensures children in [psychiatric facilities] receive Medicaid’s early periodic screening, treatment, and diagnosis gold standard of care. Finally, the AAP supports the 21st Century Cures Act’s reauthorization of a bill to prevent underage drinking, which includes a new program to train pediatric health professionals in substance use screening, intervention, and referrals.”

However, Dr. Dreyer noted that more work needs to be done.

The Family First Prevention Services Act of 2016, a comprehensive, bipartisan effort to improve how the child welfare system serves children and families in adversity, was connected to the 21st Century Cures Act until earlier this week,” he said. “Family First represents more than 2 years of work, and is a pivotal opportunity for a major federal policy shift away from placing children in out-of-home care and toward keeping families together. Removing it from this legislative package could mean losing the chance to pass it at all, an unacceptable and undeserved setback for the nation’s most vulnerable children.”

21st Century Cures also contains health IT-related provisions, mostly aimed at improving the interoperability of electronic health records. It also reduces the documentation burden on providers and establishes the authority for the HHS Office of Inspector General to penalize those engaged in information blocking between EHRs.

The bill also increases the transparency around Medicare local coverage decisions and exempts certain transfers of value from reporting requirements related to continuing education. It sets reimbursement for Medicare Part B drugs infused through durable medical equipment at 106% of average sales price.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said that a vote in that chamber could happen as early as Dec. 5. Upon House passage, President Obama signaled his intention to sign the bill, according to a statement from the White House Press Secretary.

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