The House on Tuesday evening was poised to vote on a bill intended to give dying patients greater access to experimental treatments, but it was unclear whether Republican leaders had enough votes to pass it under a fast-track process. Even if it does pass, the sponsor of the Senate version said it was uncertain how the Senate might respond.
House Democratic leaders were opposing the bill, mostly over the process Republicans used. Republicans released the so-called “Right to Try” bill at about 12:30 a.m. early Saturday morning, and on Sunday, leaders said it would get a vote on Tuesday under suspension of the rules, which does not allow amendments and requires approval from two-thirds of those present to pass. About 50 House Democrats would have to join Republicans in order for it to pass, or more if some GOP lawmakers break with their party.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., stopped short of saying that he was actively encouraging Democrats to oppose the bill. But he suggested that he was urging Democrats who might support the policy to consider the rushed process when casting their vote.
“We’re urging Democrats on the issue of process. This should have gone through committee. This was a serious bill, an important bill and we should consider it as such,” he told reporters Tuesday.
He also cited some concerns about the bill’s itself, which some health groups say could harm patients. The bill would allow drug companies to provide dying patients who were not eligible for clinical trials with drugs that had cleared the bare minimum of safety studies required by the Food and Drug Administration. But the exceptions granted by the legislation would be outside of the FDA’s purview, and the companies providing access to the treatment would be immune from liability related to adverse side effects.
“Right-to-try legislation would create a pathway to remove FDA oversight of experimental, unproven therapies. These are the treatments that most need rigorous regulatory oversight,” the leaders of the group Friends of Cancer Research said in an op-ed Monday published by the website STAT. “Excluding the FDA from the development and delivery of these therapies will make it harder to gauge their safety and effectiveness.”
The Senate passed its own version of a “Right to Try” bill in August. One key difference between the House and the Senate bills was the definition of who would be eligible to receive the treatments. The Senate version would apply to patients with “life-threatening” diseases, language that the FDA feared was so broad that it could include people with long-term chronic conditions like diabetes. The House version narrowed the definition to make it clear that it would only apply to patients who were likely to face death within months.
Even if the House bill passes, making it through the Senate a second time is not a sure thing. In August, when the Senate passed its version by voice vote, the bill’s sponsor, Ron Johnson, was using it as a bargaining chip in exchange for Senate leaders getting a quick vote on an FDA funding measure. That bill was the main piece of legislation standing between lawmakers and the August recess, which likely helped Johnson’s case.
Before the House vote, Johnson wasn’t certain what the next steps for the bill might be. “My counsel was always just pass the Senate bill. We worked long and hard. It’s a very good bill,” he told reporters. “The House is not taking that approach, so it’ll kind of be up to the House to figure out how they’re going to get this actually signed into law.”
Johnson suggested that the omnibus spending measure expected in the coming weeks could be a vehicle for either the House or Senate version, depending on the outcome in the House Tuesday evening.
With many House Democrats signaling their disapproval, Democrats in the Senate might be less inclined to give the bill an easy pass.