Now that the TPP is dead– at least for now– and won't be coming up in the lame duck, the Republicans were looking for a way to thank their K Street buddies for all the cash they poured into the elections. In fact, they also wanted to help the prescription drug corporations for the same reason. So… instead of a TPP in the lame duck, we get Fred Upton's 21st Century Cures bill again. (It passed the House in July of 2015 and then died in the Senate.) This cycle Drug corporations put $25,939,569 into congressional races– about $14.7 million to Republicans and about $11.2 million for Democrats. These were their top ten 2016 recipients for legalistic bribes in the House… we'll see how they vote later this week.
Ryan ($380,969), McCarthy ($338,150) and Fred Upton ($219,050) figure they can get this done in the lame duck. Yesterday Elizabeth Warren took to the floor of the Senate to explain why that is a very bad idea– unless you're a monopoly that wants to do some price gouging. You can watch her in the video above. “Voters,” she reminded her colleagues, “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.”
She warned her colleagues that voters don't want to see them giving in to special interests who buy their favors with campaign cash. There are parts of the bill that deal with medical innovation that Warren– and all progressives– support with enthusiasm. But leave it to corrupt conservatives to lard the bill up with give-aways to the industry.
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 [crooked Texan Ed Bosarge] 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.
…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.
The prescription drug corporations already make higher profits than any other industry. It's morally wrong and just plain unfair that they should be spending tens of millions of lobbying and bribing members of Congress for their own laws and regulations (and lack thereof). Most Americans– from across the political spectrum feel that medics should be equally available to all and that as a society we shouldn't put greed and excessive profits before health and life. The rules need it be changed, but not in the way Ryan and Upton intend– in a way to get the monopolies in check instead of giving them free rein to gouge–especially since so much of their profits come from taxpayer-funded research.
Just before the election, the AFL-CIO, the Consumers Union and several other progressive organizations got together and wrote a letter to the congressional Democratic leaders urging them to not move forward with the bill during the lame duck, believing the bill can be substantially improved. “Over the last year,” they wrote, “a series of instances of price gouging by pharmaceutical corporations has led various congressional committees to look into these practices; these efforts included several high-profile hearings and Senate Finance Committee investigations. While the Cures Act’s funding for the National Institutes of Health is a priority for many, it is critical that any legislation making changes to drug policies take steps to rein in the cost of prescription drugs… [M]oving forward with this legislation now would be a missed opportunity to address unaffordable prescription drug prices. There is no justification for moving forward with legislation that provides substantial benefits to the drug industry without asking for something in return. Mylan’s price gouging on EpiPens is just the latest example of a systemic problem. Excessive drug pricing will continue to be an issue of pressing national concern next year. Moving forward with this legislation now will undermine efforts to act on an issue next year that is the highest health care priority for the vast majority of Americans– Republicans and Democrats alike.”
If the bill gets to the Senate, don't look for much help from the Democrats. Chuck Schumer has taken $897,461 from the drug corporations and is always amenable to kiss their asses, as is Patty Murray, the ranking member of the committee in charge of the bill ($852,491). And then you have the little problem with Senate conservaDems– Jon Tester, Joe Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, Claire McCaskill– eager to work with the Republicans whenever they can get away with it, even if they screw their own constituents.
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis