Editorial: Senate should pass major health spending compromise

By The Herald Editorial Board

Neither is in abundant supply in Washington, D.C., but compromise and bipartisanship showed up this week as the U.S. House of Representatives passed the 21st Century Cures Act, legislation that provides funding for research and crucial public health programs, including $1 billion to help communities fight the opioid crisis.

The act, specifically sought by the region’s 1st and 2nd District Reps. Suzan DelBene and Rick Larsen, provides funding to address addiction to opioid painkillers and heroin and gives preference to states with higher incidences of addiction and health issues. Earlier this year, Larsen led a series of roundtable discussions with law enforcement, health officials, community leaders and other elected officials in his district about the tools to be provided in the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which was included in the Cures Act.

“Washingtonians told me loud and clear about the urgent need for additional resources to take on the opioid epidemic,” Larsen said Wednesday in a news release. “With the help of their ideas, feedback and stories today our country is taking a huge step forward to put communities in Washington state and across the country on the road to recovery.”

In addition, the Cures Act provides $1.5 billion for President Obama’s BRAIN initiative to fund research into Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury and other brain disorders; $1.8 billion for cancer research and $1.4 billion for National Institute of Health research into precision medicine, disease treatment that tailors response for each patient, funding that DelBene had sought.

The House, which voted 392-26 to approve the legislation, had passed the act previously by a similar margin. Opposition in the Senate, however, forced Republicans and Democrats in both chambers to recast the act and try again.

Some Democrats in the Senate objected to provisions that will accelerate Food and Drug Administration approval for prescription drugs and medical devices but agreed to support the Cures Act if funding was included for the NIH and the FDA. Republicans balked at funding sources that initially weren’t specified. The compromise now funds the act through sales from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and by siphoning money already approved for prevention work in the Affordable Care Act.

As with most compromises, some provisions are harder to accept than others. We’ve criticized Congress before for turning to the petroleum reserve when it needed to fund its transportation spending package, especially at a time when oil prices remain relatively low. And taking prevention money from other public health efforts does not amount to new spending toward that need, just a reshuffling of resources.

But there’s too much to be gained through the act to hold it up hoping for much more.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, said as much in a release Wednesday after the bill’s passage by the House. The Cures Act has been a priority of Murray’s, her office said, and includes programs, such as the opioid funding and policies and support to improve mental health care for which she has advocated. As the Senate considers the bill, Murray, who is the ranking minority member of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, hoped there might yet be some tweaks.

One change made shortly before its passage in the House: Doctors will not be exempted from reporting compensation they might received from pharmaceutical and medical device companies, a change that had bipartisan support in the Senate.

The $4.8 billion in funding identified in the Cures Act, specifically the money for addressing the nation’s opioid crisis and the support of medical research puts taxpayer money to good use. That the act diverts a good portion of that money from other public health efforts is disappointing. But the Senate should pass the Cures Act.

Supporters of public health and their advocates in Congress need to continue the push for the funding that disease prevention and management deserves.

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