Control secured, Senate GOP leaders to focus on medical bill

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With Republican control of the Senate secured in Tuesday’s election, GOP leaders in the House and Senate will return to Washington for a lame duck session of Congress to tackle two top priorities—funding the federal government and passing medical innovation legislation into law.

In late September, President Obama signed a continuing resolution that temporarily averted a federal government shutdown. However, that measure runs out on Dec. 9 and lawmakers are now tasked with passing a budget to keep the government open throughout fiscal year 2017, which began on Oct. 1, 2016 and ends on Sept. 30, 2017.

Before the congressional recess, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters that his personal priorities upon returning are funding the government and the 21st Century Cures Act—a package of biomedical innovation bills that, among other things, fund research at the National Institutes of Health and seek to improve health information technology interoperability.

At the time, McConnell said the 21st Century Cures Act “could end up being the most significant piece of legislation we pass in the whole Congress.” He was joined by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in the assessment, who added that the legislation would be among “very important key initiatives” that he looked forward to completing in November.

“In terms of the status of the 21st Century Cures Act, we have been in a holding pattern since the beginning of the election recess,” says Jeff Smith, vice president of public policy for the American Medical Informatics Association.

However, he says there is “good reason to be optimistic due to an increase in chatter about a vote coming soon in the lame duck session, and the fact that both Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader McConnell have indicated interest in passing something.”

At the same time, Smith tempers his optimism that the legislation will be easily passed given the current funding challenges on Capitol Hill. “Passing a large bill with a significant price tag before a larger spending package that will be needed to avoid a shutdown does not look good on paper,” he says.

Nonetheless, Senate Health Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., has said he is “committed to getting a result this year that will lead to lifesaving medical breakthroughs and advance President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative and Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot.”

Likewise, legislators in the House are also committed to getting the bill passed into law this fall. In July 2015, the House overwhelmingly approved the 21st Century Cures Act. The Senate is working on its version of the legislation. To become law, the Senate must pass its version and then conference with the House before sending an agreed upon draft to the President for his signature.

“We have been working hard for months, and we will continue to work toward an agreement that can pass both chambers and be signed by the president,” said House Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO), original co-sponsors of the bill, together with Ranking Member Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Health Subcommittee Chairman Joseph Pitts (R-PA), and Health Subcommittee Ranking Member Gene Green (D-TX).

Leslie Krigstein, vice president of congressional affairs for the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives, has no doubt that it is a top priority for both Democrats and Republicans to pass the 21st Century Cures legislation into law this year during the lame duck session.

“They’re hoping to get it done before the end of the year and they may even bring it up as soon as the first week they’re back in session,” says Krigstein.

The House and Senate will be back in session on Nov. 14.

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