In the five years since the Affordable Care Act's passage, health care has been fodder for some of the fiercest fights in politics. There have been dozens of ineffectual votes to repeal the landmark health reform law in the Republican-controlled U.S. House. Democrats have been equally as staunch in defending it. The law's future undoubtedly will be a flash point in the 2016 presidential election.
Despite that, congressional Republicans and Democrats forged unexpected unity this year on important health care legislation: the 21st Century Cures Act, which cleared the House earlier this month by a vote of 344-77. That tally indicates broad support from both parties. If the Senate takes action and the legislation is enacted, it could prove especially beneficial to Minnesota, a state that's home to world-class medical centers and medical-device companies.
As its name suggests, the intent of the act is to spur the next generation of medical treatments. It would do so primarily by boosting funding for the federal National Institutes of Health. The NIH includes 27 research centers, including the National Cancer Institute and the National Human Genome Research Institute.
The legislation would provide an additional $8.75 billion to the NIH over the next five years, a sum notable not only for its size but its arrival after about a decade of stagnant or declining funding for the institution. The Food and Drug Administration, which approves new drugs and medical devices, would receive an extra $550 million to help ensure that it has the staffing and other resources needed to review and approve health care innovations.
The investment would come as China, Singapore and other countries pour billions of public dollars into medical research to challenge American dominance. If that challenge is countered in the U.S., patients — potentially for generations to come — stand to benefit from the gains this investment could spur. That's especially true as medicine leverages the rapid recent gains in genomics and translates this knowledge into more customized treatment.
There's an economic benefit as well. NIH funds flow nationwide to researchers at medical centers such as the Mayo Clinic and the University of Minnesota. Those dollars create good-paying jobs for researchers in Minnesota, and there are multiplier benefits in the private sector as the state's medical research ecosystem strengthens. Both Mayo and U representatives are understandably enthusiastic about the legislation. So is Steve Ubl, the president of AdvaMed, the medical-device industry's Washington, D.C.-based trade organization.
Patient-safety advocates, however, have publicly objected to parts of the legislation that could speed approval of new drugs and medical devices. Critics contend this could put patients at risk from inadequately tested treatments. These concerns merit a more thorough airing in the Senate.
A substantive debate that yields a better balance on regulatory pathways to approval would only improve the 21st Century Cures Act. That said, this is worthy legislation, and the bipartisanship that has smoothed its movement through Congress is to be commended and continued.