Baker, at odds with Warren, comes out in support of medical innovation bill
At the urging of the Obama administration, Governor Charlie Baker expressed support Friday for a sweeping medical innovation bill, a striking move just days after Senator Elizabeth Warren strongly denounced the legislation.
White House aides reached out to the Republican governor earlier this week, aides said, after Warren took to the floor of the Senate to argue that the bill had been hijacked by pharmaceutical companies and stripped of funding for the National Institutes of Health.
Baker, who typically avoids congressional debates, appeared willing to turn up the heat on his home-state senator, an influential Democrat, before the bill comes to a vote in the Senate next week.
“Our administration supports the 21st Century Cures Act as an effort to advance Massachusetts’ leadership in biomedical innovation and expedite new ways to treat disease and addiction — including the opioid and heroin crisis that has devastated every corner of our state,” he said Friday in a statement.
The Obama administration’s lobbying is part of a broader White House campaign aimed at rounding up support for the bill. Administration officials have been reaching out to governors of both parties, and Vice President Joe Biden, whose Cancer Moonshot Initiative would receive $1.8 billion under the legislation, has been calling congressional Democrats and urging them to vote for the legislation, according to a senior Democratic aide.
Still, a handful of Senate Democrats have joined Warren in criticizing the bill, and Senator Bernie Sanders, the liberal from Vermont who ran for president, has declared his opposition, saying the bill provides no relief from soaring drug prices.
Massachusetts’ junior senator, Edward Markey, has pushed hard for the opioid funding included in the bill, but has not taken an official position on the overall legislation.
Warren says she was supportive of the legislation in its early development but came to oppose it after funding that was guaranteed for the NIH in an earlier House version turned into discretionary funding when it was recently rewritten by Republican lawmakers ahead of the Senate vote.
That means most of the $4.8 billion the bill would provide for medical research over the next 10 years would be released in future years only if Congress votes to do so, which critics consider a dubious prospect under Republican rule.
“Senator Warren believes if we want to boost medical innovation, we have to put real, mandatory money into NIH,” said Lacey Rose, Warren’s spokeswoman. “This bill does not include mandatory investments — it simply allows for future investments.”
Senator Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat who opposes the bill, raised a similar objection.
“We have seen these promises made and broken time and time and time again in this chamber,” said Merkley. “If you are going to make a real commitment, then why isn’t the real commitment in this bill?”
The original bill that was passed by the House in July 2015 included $8.75 billion in mandatory, or guaranteed, funding for medical research, almost double what the current bill promises.
Critics also complain that in addition to not guaranteeing NIH funding, the bill makes $3.5 billion in cuts to a prevention and public health fund that backs efforts to boost vaccine usage, prevent diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and discourage tobacco use.
Warren spoke out against the bill on the Senate floor Monday, saying that although the 900-page package contains some good pieces, a few she wrote herself, “I cannot vote for this bill. I will fight it because I know the difference between compromise and extortion.”
In addition to her doubts about NIH funding, Warren also pointed to news reports that indicate the bill would make it easier for a major Republican donor to benefit financially from selling cellular and regenerative medical therapies.
Warren aides say her outspoken opposition has led to some positive changes.
One surprise addition to the bill, a provision that would have loosened rules requiring drug and device makers to report payments they make to doctors, was removed under pressure Tuesday. Warren had singled out the provision in her critique, contending the language would enable bribery.
Warren aides say the bill was also changed on Tuesday to ensure that the federal government take into account which communities have been hardest hit by opioids, when disbursing $1 billion over two years in state grants for opioid prevention and treatment.
An earlier version included no such guarantee, which Warren said would have made Democratic states like Massachusetts vulnerable to political payback after Donald Trump becomes president.
“President Trump could use opioid crisis funding as a way to punish those suffering with this crisis when their political leaders don’t follow along with his agenda,” Warren wrote in a blog post Tuesday.
Baker’s statement trumpeted the $1 billion in opioid funding as well as the $4.8 billion in potential future funding for disease research. And he said the bill would cut red tape, easing the way for breakthrough medical devices that would boost both the economy and patient health.
“Massachusetts is a global leader in medical research and development and a strong partnership with our federal partners is important to ensuring future advances in this field,” he said. “We further support these provisions to accelerate FDA regulatory modernization to speed up the approval process for new drugs and devices to safely enter the market.”