Elizabeth Warren's embarrassing attack on medical research

When you see a big dollar piece of legislation being rushed through a lame duck session of Congress it’s generally conservatives who are up in arms. (And for good reason to be sure.) That’s why it should draw our attention when a more than $6B medical research bill coming up for a vote in the House this week is being attacked in a most hyperbolic fashion by Senator Elizabeth Warren. She went on a bit of a rampage yesterday, describing the legislation as corrupt, dangerous and an attempt to legalize fraud. Oh, and she also took time out of her busy schedule to point out how important it is for Democrats to stop the GOP from getting anything done. (Associated Press)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren delivered a ferocious attack Monday on congressional Republicans and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell over a medical research bill, and put fellow Democrats on the spot by pushing them to oppose a measure she said “is corrupt, and it is very, very dangerous.”

As Congress began the final stretch of its post-election session, Warren said the 996-page measure — a top priority for GOP leaders and backed by the biomedical industry — was riddled with provisions that she called “a bunch of special giveaways” to big pharmaceutical companies.

“They didn’t send us here to whimper, whine or grovel,” she said on the Senate floor about Democrats, using the populist rhetoric that has given her one of her party’s highest profiles. “They sent us here to say no to efforts to sell Congress to the highest bidder.”

It’s kind of interesting that this is the first red line in the sand Warren is choosing to draw, particularly so soon after voters sent her party to the woodshed. And given her normal lines of interest, this was a rather odd bill to head for the bunkers over. The first thing to consider is that the bill is virtually identical to one which previously passed the House with fairly wide bipartisan support. But the real irony here is that there’s plenty to complain about in the bill, but it’s not the portions which seem to have Warren up in arms.

You can read a more measured explanation of the legislation from the Wall Street Journal and determine if this is a good plan or not. The parts of the bill which Warren doesn’t seem upset about are the ones which should concern conservatives. They’re dumping another four billion dollars on the National Institute of Health for research but there’s not much in the way of specifics as to what that research will cover, at least from what I’ve seen thus far. If they want to advance studies on curing cancer, combating the Zika virus or figuring out why married women are 37% less likely to make you a sammich, then we might as well give it a shot. But if this turns into a multi-billion dollar study on the adverse health effects of gun violence in the home we should take a pass on it. The bill also sends roughly one billion to the states to combat drug addiction, which seems to have cross-party support. That’s a lot of money, but the bill does at least pay for itself (mostly) by raiding some Obamacare funds and cutting Medicare payments.

Ironically, one of the provisions which has put a bee under Warren’s bonnet is actually a big selling point for the bill. They’re seeking to cut down the approval cycle time for new drugs and medical devices. This isn’t eliminating safeguards entirely, but simply reducing the approval curve a bit. Everyone is complaining about the skyrocketing costs of prescriptions and medical equipment, but when it takes huge amounts of time and a ton of money to get approval, prices go up. Getting a 510(k) approval for a new medical device used to take an average of 39 days back in the eighties. Today it’s more than 150 days. The approval curve for new prescription drugs is even more staggering. Surely we can improve on that and drive down costs while maintaining safety standards.

The only place where I would agree with Warren is on her complaint about the provision which would exempt medical companies from publicly reporting some payments they make to doctors. That’s a pointless bit of cronyism which simply opens up Congress to justified criticism as a giveaway to wealthy lobbyists from the pharmaceutical industry. Patients obviously deserve to know if their doctor is prescribing a medicine for them based on what works best or if they are getting a kickback from the manufacturer.

All in all this bill sounds like it could use an open and transparent hearing with public debate before we let the outgoing elected officials rush through a six billion dollar, 1,000 page behemoth like this. But it’s not for the reasons that are driving Elizabeth Warren into hysterics on the Senate floor.

Senator Elizabeth Warren

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