The holiday season adds a comforting patina to life’s mundanities. Something about the glow of Christmas lights, the sound of a crackling fire, or the piney smell of wreath, makes everything seem a little more merry and bright. But for some, the rush of memories serves as a painful reminder of loved ones lost, many of which were taken too soon by disease.
Last week, Congress completed a project that has been three years in the making, one based around the idea that we can do better. That we can jumpstart our research system, transform our mental health system, and more effectively fight disease in order to lengthen and save lives.
Of course, three years is both nothing and everything in the grand scheme of disease. Nothing, in the sense that disease has always and will always be with us, and there have been tireless advocates who have been fighting for cures all along the way. But everything in the sense that science and biomedical innovation is moving rapidly to map the human genome, discover new biomarkers and develop personal health care apps capable of driving precision medicine. Who knows what the next three years can bring?
One thing we know is that this bill has the power to accelerate life-changing cures. As Rep. Fred Upton wrote in Medium:
21st Century Cures is a win for everyone.
It will accelerate the discovery, development, and delivery of life-saving therapies in a safe and effective way. We want to support biomedical research and harness medical innovation to turn discoveries in a lab into the treatments and cures that change patients’ lives. Our goal is to bring our health care innovation infrastructure into the 21st century, so that we can deliver real hope for patients and loved ones by providing necessary resources to researchers to continue their efforts to uncover the next generation of cures and treatments.
Hope has been a long time coming for all too many American families. There are roughly 10,000 known diseases, about 7,000 of which have been classified as rare, and we only have treatments for about 500. That’s an enormous gap, one that represents thousands of families who have been stuck in a medical system that can do nothing but to keep their loved one comfortable.
To increase that treatment number the bill appropriates nearly $5 billion to the National Institutes of Health for various research initiatives, provides $500 million to the Food and Drug Administration to speed up drug and medical device approval, and streamlines the NIH research process and FDA’s regulatory pipeline.
The bill also makes dramatic strides to improve the nation’s fraying mental health care system, which has too often played second fiddle to physical health priorities.
“Through congressional hearings and an in-depth investigation, we discovered the abhorrent, and at times fatal, disconnect between 112 federal agencies who are assigned to treat the mentally ill,” Rep. Tim Murphy, the architect of the bill’s mental health provisions said. “We exposed a $130 billion dollar investment in a system that has done little but watch the rates of homelessness, incarceration, suicide and drug overdose deaths soar. We came together, across party lines, and went to work. Today, we have passed legislation that will save lives.”
The bill does so many things that it’s hard to hit the highlights, but among other things the bill gives new funds to states to prevent and treat mental health, makes structural changes to the way federal agencies prioritize and fund mental health services, and encourages states to invest in projects to reduce homelessness, improve crisis response, and provide targeted interventions for individuals who have both mental health and substance use disorders.
“What a day, and what a moment,” Speaker Paul Ryan said upon signing the bill. “I could not think of a better way to end the year than by signing this bill.”
And although it can’t alleviate the pain that many will feel this holiday season at remembering the loss of a love one, it does provide hope – hope that Washington can work when it needs to and hope that new cures and better treatments are on the way.