Nevada’s outgoing U.S. Senator Harry Reid is in a major spat
about public policy affecting Americans facing apparently terminal illnesses.
Reid, the Senate Minority (Democratic) Leader, has blocked a
bill by Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin that would allow patients
facing death to try experimental treatments not yet fully approved by the
federal Food and Drug Administration.
Johnson and 42 co-sponsors, including two Democrats, say the
costly and arduous federal Food and Drug Administration approval process keeps
drugs on the shelves for years waiting for final approval even after passing
initial safety trials. Their Trickett Wendler Right to Try Act of 2016 (S.
2912) would allow patients access to such drugs – and protect manufacturers
and distributors from lawsuits for such experimental uses – as long as such use
is in accordance with applicable state laws.
The bill also would allow these experimental treatments to
be tried without affecting the results of clinical trials.
Johnson attempted on Sept. 28 to gain “unanimous consent” to
fast-track S. 2912 to consideration by the full Senate.
But Reid objected, saying the bill is partisan and demanding
a hearing on it.
Johnson replied the next day that the Committee on Homeland
Security and Governmental Affairs, which he chairs, has indeed held two
hearings on the bill; and that Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe
Manchin of Indiana both are co-sponsors. Finally, replying to Reid’s contention
that the attempt to fast-track the bill is a “cheap stunt” aimed at helping Johnson’s re-election campaign, the Wisconsin senator noted that
the legislature in Reid’s own Nevada last year had become the 18th
state to pass the state equivalent of his federal bill – and that it did so
with unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Since Nevada passed its law last year, another 14 states have
done so, making the so-called “right-to-try” movement one of the nation’s
fastest-growing policy innovations. California’s Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown
signed his state’s version of the bill on Sept. 27.
“A lot of people are
willing to try a medication that hasn’t been proven to work, on the chance that
it might work,” Timothy Sandefur, an attorney with the Arizona-based Goldwater
Institute, told American Media Institute. “It should be the patient’s right to
Johnson accused Reid of putting his political agenda above
compassion for the terminally ill such as the young mother from a Milwaukee
suburb for whom the bill is named. Trickett Wendler died in March after a
battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS.
AMI attempted to contact Reid’s office for comment three
times in 36 hours, twice by phone and once by email, and left messages for his deputy
chief of staff Adam Jentleson – but received no reply to our query.
Some medical ethicists oppose the Trickett Wendler Right to
Try bill. Writing June 28 in The Hill newspaper, research associates Lisa
Kearns and Beth Roxland of the New York University Langone Medical Center’s
Division of Medical Ethics called
it a “hollow bill” that “creates no new rights” for patients — in part
because it does not require insurance companies to cover the treatments. They
described the bill as a “false promise” that is “shameful.” They also said some of the medicines might even exacerbate the patients’ suffering.
Johnson, who faces a tough re-election bid in November, said
he plans to push the bill again after the election. In his letter to
Reid objecting to Reid’s parliamentary obstruction, Johnson wrote: “I assure
you that whatever the result, I will return to the Senate floor in November on
behalf of all those terminally ill patients who could care less about partisan
politics in Washington and want only the right to save their own lives.”
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