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Congress passes 21st Century Cures Act, boosting research and easing drug approvals

Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), second from left, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) participate in a news conference to call for Senate passage of mental health care reform on Dec. 5. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Congress passed sweeping legislation Wednesday that boosts funding for medical research, eases the development and approval of experimental treatments and reforms federal policy on mental health care.

The 94 to 5 Senate vote Wednesday followed a 392 to 26 House vote last week. The bill, known as the 21st Century Cures Act, now heads to the desk of President Obama, who praised the bill Wednesday and said he would sign it.

The bill provides for $4.8 billion in new funding for the National Institutes of Health; of that, $1.8 billion is reserved for the “cancer moonshot” launched by Vice President Biden to accelerate research in that field. Another $1.6 billion is earmarked for brain diseases including Alzheimer’s. Also included are $500 million in new funding for the Food and Drug Administration and $1 billion in grants to help states deal with opioid abuse.

House overwhelmingly passes ‘Cures’ legislation to streamline drug approval

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, called the bill a “Christmas miracle . . . that will help virtually every American family.”

“With its vote today of 94 to 5, the Senate has sent an unmistakable message that the time is now to deliver on the promise of 21st Century Cures,” he said.

The bill, however, had vocal progressive critics — Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) prime among them — who said the bill’s changes to drug approval processes gave too many concessions to pharmaceutical companies.

Public Citizen, a progressive activist group that opposed the bill, called it “sorely disappointing that Congress gave Big Pharma and the medical device industry an early Christmas present” that “comes at the expense of patient safety by undermining requirements for ensuring safe and effective medications and medical devices.”

Congress set to vote on bill that promises to speed up drug approval

But the bill won wide support from Democrats. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) negotiated key provisions to boost research funding, and  Obama gave the bill a strong statement of support ahead of its passage in the House.

Voting against the bill were Sanders, Warren, Mike Lee (R-Utah), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

On Wednesday, the president  praised its final passage. “‎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,” Obama said in a statement. “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. . . . This bill will make a big difference, and I look forward to signing it as soon as it reaches my desk.”

On Monday, Biden sat in the Senate president’s chair as the bill cleared a key procedural vote. Before that vote, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced and cleared for passage a separate bill renaming the cancer research portion of the bill after Biden’s son, Beau, who died in 2015 of a brain tumor at  46.