Update: This story was originally published Dec. 9. President Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act on December 13. Surrounded by families who’ve been affected by diseases such as opioid addiction and cancer, the president said the law would help the United States combat the most devastating diseases affecting the country today, including substance use disorders.
“Today, I could not be prouder that this legislation takes up the charge that I laid down in my budget to provide $1 billion in funding so that Americans who want treatment can get started on the path to recovery and don’t have to drive six hours to do it,” Obama said at the White House. “It is the right thing to do, and families are ready for the support.”
The original story is below.
The U.S. Senate voted 94-5 to approve a $6.8 billion health care bill that includes $1 billion to combat opioid addiction on December 6. It also includes billions of dollars for medical research, including $1.8 billion to search for a cure for cancer.
Both branches of Congress overwhelmingly supported the bill, and President Barack Obama is expected to sign it before he leaves office.
“I’ll sign it as soon as it reaches my desk, because like a lot of you, I’ve lost people I love to cancer,” President Obama said in a weekly address. “I hear every day from Americans whose loved ones are suffering from addiction and other debilitating diseases. And I believe we should seize every chance we have to find cures as soon as possible.”
The House approved the 21st Century Cures Act in a 392-26 vote on Nov. 30, and the legislation is expected to be the last major act of Congress signed by Obama before President-elect Donald Trump enters offices.
The bill is expected to revolutionize the mental health care system in the United States and expand access to treatment.
“I’d heard too many devastating stories of people struggling with serious mental illness and addiction whose lives were forever changed because they couldn’t get the care they need,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said in a statement. “I’d seen up close the heartbreak and frustration that families suffered trying to find care for a loved one — care that seemed impossible to find and even harder to pay for.”
The 21st Century Cures Act is characterized as an innovative bill that improves regulation and modernizes government agencies to keep pace with science and technological advances. However, opponents believe some aspects of the bill threaten public safety and give too much power to pharmaceutical companies.
“I cannot vote for this bill,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said on the senate floor. “I will fight it because I know the difference between compromise and extortion.”
The senator said the bill included “a bunch of special giveaways” for pharmaceutical companies and that the bill would “legalize fraud” because it reduced the amount of evidence companies need to prove a current drug or medical device was safe for alternative uses.
In a statement, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., opposed the bill for not setting limits on the increasing costs of prescription drugs.
“This is a bad bill which should not be passed in its current form,” Sanders said. “It’s time for Congress to stand up to the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, not give them more handouts.”
But 94 other senators disagreed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the bill protects patient safety while removing regulatory barriers to accessing new treatments.
“This legislation puts patients first,” McConnell said. “It helps strengthen the kind of research and treatments needed to cure the most devastating diseases. And it includes provisions to help enhance mental health programs and to provide funding to help fight opioid abuse.”
Several Democrats were reportedly unhappy about easing the FDA approval process. But they weren’t unhappy enough to vote against funding for medical research, several White House initiatives and opioid prevention and treatment efforts.
For months, Democrats have complained that the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act approved in July didn’t receive the funding it required to adequately address addiction. The Cures Act essentially answers Obama’s February request for $1 billion to combat the opioid epidemic by providing funds for most CARA initiatives.
“It will make real investments this year to combat the heroin and prescription drug epidemic that’s plaguing so many of our communities,” Obama said. “For nearly a year, I’ve been calling for this investment so hundreds of thousands of Americans can get the treatment they need, and I’m glad Congress is finally getting it done.”
How 21st Century Cures Combats Opioid Addiction
The 21st Century Cures Act appropriates $500 million for each of the next two years for states to combat opioid addiction and abuse. The Secretary of Health and Human Services has the authority to distribute the funds to states.
President-elect Donald Trump has nominated U.S. Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., as the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Earlier this year, Price voted in favor of the Comprehensive Opioid Abuse and Reduction Act of 2016, the House version of CARA. He also voted for the 21st Century Cures Act when the House approved it in November.
The $1 billion will be granted to states to fund:
- Prevention programs and research on prevention strategies
- Training to teach prescribers to follow opioid prescribing guidelines, learn to safely manage pain and refer patients to treatment
- Expanded access to substance abuse treatment
- Other public health activities to combat the opioid crisis
States with a higher prevalence of opioid use disorders are authorized to receive more funds than states with a lower prevalence.
The bill also reforms the mental health system by:
- Creating an Assistant Secretary for Mental Health Substance Abuse to coordinate federal mental health programs
- Creating the National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Lab to guide grants awarded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- Improving communication between mental health providers and families of patients
The 21st Century Cures Act is supposed to modernize the country’s health care system and address some of the most devastating diseases of the new millennium. Passing it gives the HHS and state governments the resources they need to hit the ground running in 2017.