The House approved a sweeping, bipartisan healthcare bill as one of its last acts of 2016, rolling together three measures lawmakers had tried to advance all year.
Approved 392-26 on Wednesday, the legislative package seeks to speed up new drug approvals, improve and better coordinate how mental healthcare is delivered, and gives new funding to medical research and fighting the opioid epidemic.
The $6.3 billion bill represents many hours of congressional hearings and legislative negotiations over the past few years, as lawmakers sought to respond to concerns that the Food and Drug Administration's drug approval process is inefficient and out of date and many Americans struggling with mental health disorders and drug abuse aren't getting the help they need.
"No matter where you're from, one thing that binds us all together is that we all want more time with our loved ones," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich. "That's why we're here today because the clock is ticking for patients and their families."
Upton had worked alongside Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., on the 21st Century Cures Act, which provides $500 million more to the FDA and $4.77 billion more to the National Institutes of Health over 10 years. It also gives drug makers some new pathways for getting their drugs approved by the FDA, which advocates say would reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens.
Lawmakers combined that bill with mental health legislation long championed by Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., which aims to simplify duplicative government programs and improve coordination among agencies.
The measure creates a new assistant secretary for mental health at the Department of Health and Human Services and sets up a new panel to streamline the federal government's web of mental health programs. It also requires states to use at least 10 percent of their mental health block grants on early intervention and sets up a grant program to provide assertive community treatment.
"This truly will provide many lifesaving measure and bring mental health treatment out of the shadows," Murphy said.
The measure also includes $1 billion to states to address opioid abuse, making the funds available to expand treatment and prevention efforts.
It is expected to by taken up by the Senate early next week, according to Sen. Lamar Alexander, who heads the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee with jurisdiction over the FDA. But while it has wide approval among Republicans there, it could come up against some roadblocks from Democratic senators.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are leading opponents of the Cures bill, saying it amounts as a handout to the pharmaceutical industry at a time when Americans are struggling with high drug prices.
"This bill provides absolutely no relief for soaring drug prices," Sanders said. "The greed of the pharmaceutical industry has no limit, and this bill includes numerous corporate giveaways that will make drug companies even richer."
Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., also oppose how it draws some funding from Obamacare's public health and prevention fund. They also want more funding for the package, expressing concerns that it doesn't include enough money to be fully put in motion.
"This bill is a pale imitation of the original bill," Durbin said on the Senate floor Wednesday. He noted the original 21st Century Cures Act the House passed last year offered about $9 billion in new funding.
Merkley said on the Senate floor that taking money from Obamacare's prevention fund is a gift to tobacco companies that "hate prevention programs because they make their money off addicts."
But advocates for the bill have been determined to get it through the current Congress and signed by President Obama, who supports the legislation. The White House released a statement immediately after the bill passed the House urging the Senate to "promptly pass this bill so that the president can sign it."
Upton has especially been eager to get it passed, as his term as Energy and Commerce chairman will end this year.
"We are at the end of the session crunch, and so a lot of things that perhaps are good public policy and easy to do are being crammed into a short period of time," Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., told the Washington Examiner earlier this week.