Johnson City Press: Senate passed 21st Century Cures Act 94-5, includes $1 billion in opioid treatment funding

Posted on December 9, 2016

On the heels of bipartisan House approval, the Senate handily approved the wide-sweeping 21st Century Cures Act, which includes $1 billion in state grants to treat opioid addiction, by a 95-4 vote Tuesday afternoon. 

Now the bill will move along to President Barack Obama’s desk, where it will likely be signed into law. Obama has been a vocal proponent of the act. 

In an Op-Ed column published in The Columbus Dispatch, Obama said, “(The 21st Century Cures Act) will build upon steps we have already taken to expand overdose-prevention strategies, improve opioid-prescription practices, and ensure more Americans seeking addiction treatment can get the help they so desperately need.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., spoke to his fellow senators about the bill’s importance prior to the vote. 

“It’s pretty rare that we have legislation that the president of the United States says this is an opportunity we just can’t miss. The vice president of the United States is telephoning senators before they go into their caucus meetings to urge them to support it. At the same time, the speaker of the House, a Republican, is saying this is part of my agenda for the future for our country and the majority leader is saying its the most important bill we’re acting on,” Alexander said on the Senate floor. 

“Now, it still wasn’t easy to pass because we’re dealing really with a lot of life and death issues.”

Alexander, who is chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, spearheaded the legislation in the upper chamber while Reps. Fred Upton, R-Mich., and Tim Murphy, R-Pa., advocated the bill in the House. 

“The Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services is supportive of any measure that would increase funding to help combat the prescription drug epidemic,” according to a statement from the state agency. 

“It is too early to know for certain if Tennessee would receive any of the 21st Century Cures Act funding allocated for addressing the opioid crisis, but our department remains committed to aggressively pursuing any federal funding that becomes available. If this act passes, we will engage in the application process in order to hopefully receive a portion of the new funds to be used for our opioid prevention, education and treatment efforts.”

Sen. Bob Corker, who voted for the measure, released a statement calling the bill’s passage “a testament to Senator Alexander’s leadership and will help countless Tennesseans who are directly impacted by cancer, Alzheimer’s, mental illness and opioid abuse.”

“By streamlining the FDA review process and advancing biomedical research, this bill will encourage innovation and provide quicker access to the lifesaving medications and treatments that so many families need,” Corker added.

The 1,000-page legislation loosely details how the $1 billion will be split in half for the 2017 and 2018 fiscal years. It also allows the president and secretary of Health and Human Services to give funding preference to states with a higher percentage of opioid abuse. Tennessee is second only to Alabama for the most opioid prescriptions per 100 people.

Increasing drug-monitoring programs and improving prevention tactics and proper prescribing practices are also mentioned in the legislation. 

The House passed the legislation last week by a 392 to 26 vote. 

Along with funding for opioid treatment, the bill will also aim to shake up the Food and Drug Administration, hasten the approval of drugs and devices and address the country’s mental health crisis through increasing the number of psychiatrists and psychologists. 

Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., were among the five who voted against the bill. 

“When American voters say Congress is owned by big companies, this bill is exactly what they are talking about,” Warren said during a Senate floor speech last week. 

Both Democrats believe the bill will give pharmaceutical companies too much leeway and does not address increased drug pricing.