This bill isn’t a compromise. It’s extortion.
Three weeks ago, Americans went to the polls. Voters were deeply divided on whether Democrats or Republicans should be in charge. Donald Trump is the President-elect despite losing the popular vote by more than two million people.
But there is one thing that Americans were not divided on. On one issue, their message was loud and clear. According to exit polls, 70% of voters said they think the American economy and the lawmakers who oversee it are owned — owned — by big companies and special interests. That’s 70% of everybody-Democrats, Republicans, Independents.
In the closing days of this Congress, Big Pharma has its hand out for a bunch of special giveaways and favors that are packed together in something called the 21st Century Cures bill. It’s on track to get a vote in the House this week and then get rammed through the Senate. I’ve been looking at the details.
And when American voters say Congress is owned by big companies, this bill is exactly what they are talking about. Now, we face a choice. Will this Congress say that yes, we’re bought and paid for, or will we stand up and work for the American people?
For more than two years, Congress has been working on legislation to help advance medical innovation in the United States. Medical innovation is powerfully important, and I have spent as much time working it as any other issue during my time in the Senate.
From the beginning, I have emphasized one obvious fact. Medical breakthroughs come from increasing investments in basic research. Right now, Congress is choking off investments in the NIH. Adjusted for inflation, federal spending on medical research over the past dozen years has been cut by 20%. Those cuts take the legs out from under future medical innovation in America. We can name a piece of legislation the “cures” bill, but if it doesn’t include meaningful funding for the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, it won’t cure anything.
That’s why months ago Senate Democrats said any so-called “cures” legislation must have a significant investment in medical research. And that’s why Senate Republicans publicly committed to doing exactly that. But now they have reneged on that promise and let Big Pharma hijack the Cures bill. This final deal has only a tiny fig leaf of funding, for NIH and for the opioid crisis.
And most of that fig leaf isn’t even real. Most of the money won’t really be there unless future Congresses passes future bills in future years to spend those dollars.
Why bother with a fig leaf in the Cures bill? Why pretend to give any money to NIH or opioids? Because this funding is political cover for huge giveaways to giant drug companies. There are more examples than I can count, but here are three.
First giveaway — legalize fraud.
It is against the law for drug companies to market drugs for uses not approved by the FDA. Some drug companies find this rule annoying — after all, they could make a whole lot more money selling a headache pill as a cure for everything from hair loss to cancer. But pushing treatments without scientific evidence that they work is fraud — fraud that can hurt people. It also undercuts the development of real cures. That’s why some of the largest law enforcement actions against big drug companies in the last fifteen years have involved off-label marketing. Drug companies have paid billions in penalties.
One solution would be for these companies to start following the law. But they prefer Plan B — cozy up to enough people in Congress to pass this Cures bill that would shoot holes in the anti-fraud law.
Make it easier for drug companies to get away with fraud.
Second giveaway — cover up bribery.
Right now, the law requires drug companies to disclose the buckets of money they shower on doctors and hospitals to encourage them to prescribe certain drugs. It’s all published on a government website — you can go look up your doctor or hospital right now if you want.
The drug companies’ could have responded by ending kickbacks. But they’ve chosen Plan B again -cozy up to enough people in Congress to pass this Cures bill that would let drug companies keep secret any splashy junkets or gifts associated with “medical education” and make it harder for enforcement agencies to trace those bribes. Senator Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, says he is outraged by this provision. Well, I’m with Senator Grassley on this.
Third giveaway — hand out dangerous, special deals to Republican campaign contributors.
According to news reports, a major Republican donor stands to benefit financially from selling cellular and regenerative medical therapies. If this guy had his way, he’d be able to sell them to desperate people without a final FDA determination that those therapies are effective or safe. Of course, that would be against the law. So this megadonor has poured millions of dollars into Mitch McConnell’s personal campaign coffers and into his Republican SuperPAC, and now he wants his reward. So the Cures act offers to sell government favors. It delivers a special deal so people can sell these treatments without meeting the FDA gold standards for protecting patient safety and making sure these drugs do some good.
Keep in mind: people could die from using unproven treatments. In fact, people have already died even during carefully controlled research experiments on these types of treatments. Congress shouldn’t be in the business of selling FDA favors to the highest bidder, risking people’s lives to enrich political donors.
Let’s be clear. What the Republicans are proposing is corrupt, and it is very, very dangerous.
And there’s more. Republicans decided to hand out gifts for other special interests. The Cures Act-a bill that was supposed to be about medical innovation-has a giveaway to the gun lobby. The bill cuts Medicare funding. It raids money from the Affordable Care Act. It takes health care dollars that should have gone to Puerto Rico. It makes it harder for people with disabilities to get Medicaid services. There’s a lot of bad stuff here.
A lot of bad stuff, but not everything is bad. Republican leaders are playing a crafty game, trying to buy off Democratic votes, one-by-one, by tacking on good, bipartisan proposals that Senators in both parties have worked on, in good faith, for years. A bipartisan mental health bill. Bipartisan provisions protecting the genetic privacy of patients. Bipartisan provisions to give some very limited funding for important priorities like our national opioid crisis and the Vice President’s Cancer Moonshot initiative. A proposal to improve foster care.
I support most of these proposals. I’ve worked on many of them for years. I even wrote several of them myself. If this bill becomes law, there is no question it will contain some real legislative accomplishments.
But I cannot vote for this bill. I will fight it because I know the difference between compromise and extortion.
Compromise is putting together common-sense health proposals supported by Democrats, by Republicans, and by most of the American people, and passing them into law. Extortion is holding those exact same proposals hostage unless everyone agrees to special favors for campaign donors and giveaways to the richest drug companies in the world.
Compromise is when Senators — Democrats and Republicans — find the way forward on issues that matter to their constituents. Extortion is telling those same senators to forget what your constituents want — nothing to deal with the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs and nothing to increase medical research. Instead, every important, common-sense, bipartisan bill on mental health, genetic privacy, opioid addiction, foster care, and anything else will die today — unless Democrats agree to make it easier for giant drug companies to commit fraud, give out kickbacks, and put patients’ lives at risk. This demand is enough to make me gag.
Scientists who invent new cures should be celebrated, along with the companies that support them. But let me be perfectly clear. While the drug industry may get a seat at the table, they do not own the table. I do not care how many armies of lawyers and lobbyists they send out. I do not care how many campaign contributions they dump into Congressional pockets. I do not care how painful they can make life for politicians who oppose them. I will not be their lackey.
I will work for the hundreds of thousands of scientists and doctors who are committed to saving lives and who are waiting for Congress to fund their work.
I will work for the millions of families that have been touched by Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer, and other deadly diseases who are counting on that research.
I will work for the 70% of voters who are sick of a Congress that is owned by big donors and giant corporations.
Republicans are taking over Congress. They are taking over the White House. But Republicans don’t have majority support in this country. The majority of voters supported Democratic Senate candidates over Republicans ones, and the majority supported a Democratic Presidential candidate over a Republican one.
The American people didn’t give Democrats majority support so we could come back to Washington and play dead. They didn’t send us here to whimper, whine, or grovel. They sent us here to say NO to efforts to sell Congress to the highest bidder. They sent us here to stand up for what’s right.
Now, they are watching, waiting, and hoping — hoping we show some spine and start fighting back when Congress completely ignores the message of the American people and returns to all its same old ways.
Republicans will control this government — but they cannot hand over that control to big corporations unless Democrats roll over and allow them to do so.
It is time for Democrats — Democrats and Republicans who should be ashamed by this kind of corruption — to make it clear who exactly they work for. Does the Senate work for big pharma that hires the lobbyists and makes the campaign contributions or does the Senate work for American people who actually sent us here.