Washington – Connecticut Democratic lawmakers split with Rep. Rosa DeLauro and other progressives in their party Wednesday over a bill that includes Sen. Chris Murphy’s mental health bill and authorizes spending $1 billion to treat and prevent opioid addiction.

The House approved the measure on a overwhelming 392-26 vote. Reps. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District; John Larson, D-1st District; Jim Himes, D-4th District; and Elizabeth Esty, D-5th District, voted for it.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District CtMirror.org File Photo

But DeLauro, D-3rd District, was among the progressives trying to kill the nearly 1,000-page bill. Controversy centered on the “21st Century Cures Act” that was included in the omnibus legislation.

It would speed federal approval of certain drugs and, among other things, allow a drug approved for one purpose to be used for a related disease without going through the entire approval process,

“Rather than protect those who rely on our health care system, this bill reduces the already weak regulations on medical devices, allows drugs to be approved with only limited evidence of the drug’s safety and efficacy, and rushes the use of new and unproven antibiotics,” DeLauro said.

The massive bill was a compromise between Republican and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate.

But Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., urged Democrats to vote against it because she said the measures Democrats wanted, including funding for cancer research and to fight opioid addiction, should have been voted on separately from the “21 Century Cures Act.”

“Compromise is putting together commonsense health proposals supported by Democrats, by Republicans, and by most of the American people, and passing them into law,” she said. “Extortion is holding those exact same proposals hostage unless everyone agrees to special favors for campaign donors and giveaways to the richest drug companies in the world.”

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-!st District
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-!st District

But ultimately, only five Democrats besides DeLauro voted against the bill. The other 15 were Republican members of the conservative “Freedom Caucus.”

Courtney praised the bill’s authorization of funding to fight opioid addiction and promotion of pediatric research through the National Institutes of Health.

The bill also instructs the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct or support research on Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses, establish the Inter-agency Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Working Group, and submit a strategic plan for tick-borne disease research. Courtney championed all of these provisions.

“From new funding to combat the growing opioid crisis to making the fight against tick-borne diseases like Lyme disease a national priority – this bill contains substantive wins for Connecticut that will make a real difference for people back home,” Courtney said.

He also said, “This bill demonstrates that Congress is finally ready to put its money where its mouth is and provide our communities with the support they need to turn the tide on drug addiction.”

Other Democrats argued that the money to combat opioid addiction was only authorized by the legislation and still requires Congress to appropriate the funding.

The bill also incorporates most of Murphy’s wide-ranging mental health reform bill.

“I’ve been working on this issue since I was 25 years old in the Connecticut State legislature, and I ran for Congress in part because I knew that I couldn’t fix what was broken with Connecticut’s mental health system without addressing the myriad of federal funding sources, laws and regulations that create today what is kind of a dystopian web of health care in this country,” Murphy said in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday.

The bill would reauthorize a number of mental health grants used by states like Connecticut and establish new ones.

One new grant would fund intensive early intervention for infants and young children who are at risk of developing or are showing signs of mental illness. Another grant would support pediatrician consultation.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy

Murphy’s bill also would create a new senior position at the Department of Health and Human Services. The new assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse would be responsible for overseeing grants and promoting best practices.

The legislation also would strengthen federal law regarding parity between insurance coverage of physical and mental health illness. It would require federal agencies to report on enforcement actions related to the mental health parity law and to audit a health plan if it is found to have violated existing mental health parity laws.

Some of the things Murphy wanted did not survive the legislative process, including removing a Medicaid limitation on the number of mental health and substance abuse beds a hospital can have and still qualify for federal money.

“It’s a compromise,” Murphy said. “Republicans gave and Democrats gave.”

The bill also would fund the Obama administration’s “Cancer Moonshot,” providing  $4.8 billion over 10 years to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for work on a series of cutting-edge cancer treatments, including regenerative medicine using adult stem cells.

The Senate plans to vote on the bill next week.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

Leave a comment