WASHINGTON — A bill helping people with deadly diseases try experimental treatments sailed through Congress on Tuesday, a victory for President Donald Trump and foes of regulation and a defeat for patients’ groups and Democrats who argued that the measure was dangerous and dangled false hope.
After an emotional debate, the House gave the legislation final congressional approval by a largely party-line vote of 250-169, nine months after it passed the Senate.
Republicans argued that the measure would help hundreds of thousands of people, patients “desperately seeking a beacon of hope,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore.
“Why do you not want to allow these patients to exercise their right to fight for their future?” Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, who chairs that panel’s health subcommittee, asked Democrats.
Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, top Democrat on the committee, had an answer. The measure would give people diagnosed with life-threatening conditions and who’ve exhausted treatment options access to unproven drugs without first getting a signoff from the federal Food and Drug Administration, an omission Pallone said was dangerous.
“This will provide fly-by-night physicians and clinics the opportunity to peddle false hope and ineffective drugs to desperate patients,” Pallone said.
The bill “puts patients at risk by allowing the sale of snake oil,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill.
Trump endorsed the effort in January’s State of the Union address, saying, “People who are terminally ill should not have to go from country to country to seek a cure — I want to give them a chance right here at home.”
The so-called Right to Try legislation has been pushed by the libertarian Goldwater Institute, which broadly backs decreased government regulation and has helped get similar bills enacted in over three dozen states. It is also supported by the conservative Americans for Prosperity, backed by the wealthy brothers Charles and David Koch, which warned that it would include the vote in its annual rating of lawmakers’ records.
New drugs normally undergo years of expensive testing before manufacturers seek and gain FDA approval to market them.
The bill, originally sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., also provides some legal protections for pharmaceutical makers, doctors or others involved in providing the treatment.