ICYMI: Saving lives through legislation
New law pushed by Fred Upton aims to help find cures for various diseases
By Jordan Climie
Congressman Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, had a simple idea: More could be done to foster the next era of medical innovations here in America. Patients needed a game-changer.
"We worked on this for a lot of years, three years in the running," Upton said. "We asked ourselves 'what could we do to find a cure for all these diseases that ail almost everybody?'"
The answer was the 21st Century Cures Act, legislation that will streamline processes toward treating and eliminating diseases that affect millions of people around the world.
With the Act signed into law by President Barack Obama on Dec. 13, 2016, $4.8 billion in spending will be available over the next 10 years to the National Institute of Health. Included in that will be:
- $1.45 billion for President Obama's Precision Medicine Initiative to drive research into genetic, lifestyle, and environmental variations of disease.
- $1.8 billion for the Beau Biden "Cancer Moonshot" to speed research.
- $1.5 billion for the BRAIN initiative to improve our understanding of diseases like Alzheimer's and speed diagnoses and treatment.
- Provide $500 million to the FDA.
- Provide $1 billion in grants to states to address the opioid crisis.
- Address the country's mental health crisis and help the one out of five adult Americans suffering from mental illness and substance abuse disorders receive the care they need.
"My first huge issue was doubling the money for the NIH," Upton said. "I remember going to see a University of Michigan researcher in Ann Arbor and he talked to me about literally packing up his U-Haul trailer with facts and info and submitting them to NIH, and he got a grant where he identified the breast cancer gene. Incredible."
The researcher went on to tell Upton that his research was funded over others, and he "pitied those who didn't because we probably missed out on a lot of advancements."
After that, Congressman Upton began work to shorten the time it takes to develop new drugs and devices to cure diseases, with Alzheimer's being one disease that needs attention.
"Alzheimer's will cost Medicare $1 trillion in the year 2050, so anything less that we spend is savings," he said. "We need to find a cure. We know a lot of people with Alzheimer's, it's painful for the individual but also painful for the family."
Upton and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle had dozens of roundtable discussions, according to Upton.
"Because we wanted to make it safe, we said 'you tell us what we can do as legislators to find cures for these diseases,'" he said.
There was a Michigan focus on these discussions as well. Experts were consulted during roundtables at the Homer J. Stryker M.D. School of Medicine on the campus of Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, and the University of Michigan in Dearborn. According to Upton, 21st Century Cures will not only help Michigan patients, but also Michigan-based researchers, doctors, and innovators.
Upton gives credit to the Obama Administration, namely his Vice President.
"(Joe) Biden was really the point person," Upton said. "When Biden was in the chair (during the Senate vote), he was visibly weeping. I had met with him just prior to that and he gave me a big hug because he knew we were part of the big change to name it the Beau Biden ("Cancer Moonshot"). Even the Senators who opposed it went up to him to say 'I'm sorry for voting against it.'"
But the bill process wasn't without its problems, especially when it came to making sure this would have no effect on taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office signed off on the bill, giving the all-clear to proceed. But when it came for a vote on the Senate floor after passing the House, the Senate used the money set aside for the 21st Century Cures Act for their own bills, leaving Upton without the financial support needed.
"They pick-pocketed me," he said. "We came back with more pay-fors (money set aside to help fund legislation) but didn't telegraph what they were. We kept them in the drawer until the end."
A month after the bill became law, Upton is already seeing positive changes.
"The National Cancer Institute already has promulgated regulations streamlining the testing of cancer drug formularies - 150 drugs, that will streamline the cancer trials by months, directly because of the Cures Act," he said. "Already we're making great progress in funding this fiscal year, not only for mental health, but cancer and opioids. We found a way."