In the closing days of the notoriously gridlocked 114th Congress, partisans worked together to pass the 21th Century Cures Act, aimed at igniting new research to combat our most intractable diseases. From cancers to opioid addiction, a subject of particular importance to New Jersey Congressman Frank Pallone. He spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.
Williams: Thank you for being with us congressman.
Pallone: Thank you.
Williams: One billion dollars was delegated to fight the opioid epidemic — that’s nationally. How much of that is headed for New Jersey?
Pallone: We figure about $26 million because you know New Jersey has a high percentage of people that are abusing heroin and opioids and are addicted. So, about $26 million is what we estimate.
Williams: Which programs will that funding support?
Pallone: Well, it’s basically up to the state to decide, but I think most of it will go towards treatment. This week I was at Damon House in New Brunswick which is a treatment facility where people spend six weeks living there — I shouldn’t say six weeks, six months — and there’s really a shortage of facilities like that and beds and a lot of people can’t get into these facilities. It can also be used to monitor abuse. For example, when one person shops around different doctors or different pharmacies to try to buy excessive amount of prescription drug painkillers or some of it could even be used for enforcement but we expect most of it will be for treatment.
Williams: There has been a lot of action by the state of New Jersey in trying to combat this growing surge of opioid addiction. Are we doing enough?
Pallone: I don’t think we can ever do enough Mary Alice, because the bottom line is that this is an epidemic of proportions. I really want to stress — and I always stress — that it’s not just in urban areas, it’s not with a particular racial or ethnic group. In fact, in New Jersey the biggest problem is in Monmouth and Ocean counties which of course I live in Monmouth County, it’s a suburban county. So, this is across every class, every race and ethnic group and it knows no bounds at this point.
Williams: What else needs to be done?
Pallone: Well I think that — we also passed a bill, I should mention, back in July, the president signed a bill that we also worked on that I negotiated, a bipartisan again, that tries to do some different things. For example, it gives the ability for doctors to treat more patients with drugs that treat those who have addiction, it gives help to local law enforcement agencies for naloxone, which is the drug reversal drug, when someone has an overdose if you immediately give it to them they don’t die. It allows pharmacies to just fill partial prescriptions for prescription drug painkillers because a lot of times you’ll buy a whole month or two months’ supply and then somebody else will get a hold of it in your family or a friend. So there are a lot of different things that we are trying to do, more needs to be done.
Williams: Another part of this bill allocates $1.8 billion to cancer research based on the “Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot”. What’s the significance of this program?
Pallone: Well what it’s trying to do is we know that we haven’t made much progress in terms of treating them or developing cures. The cancer moonshot is designed to try to take research that would normally take 10 years and reduce it to five. In a real effort to go after some of the — you know a perfect example would be pancreatic cancer where there hasn’t been a lot of progress and often times when it’s diagnosed you only live about six months. That’s a perfect example of a type of cancer we are trying to reach out and do some more research.
Williams: In the context of this bill some advocates are concerned, as a result, the FDA will loosen regulations on getting drugs or medical devices to market. Does that concern you?
Pallone: It doesn’t because we went around the country and we got input from all different groups — because now we are talking about the larger 21st Century Cures Bill not just the cancer moonshot — and what we found is that a lot of the clinical trials are not frequent enough or they have difficulty getting started with drug approvals and medical device approvals have been approved in other countries, particularly in the European Union, and not here. So, you know if you’re trying to innovate and come up with ways to innovate you’re going to have to change the process of approval. Some say well risk safety, but you know what I think that we’ve done it in a way that allows innovation but doesn’t risk safety.
Williams: Is the funding in perpetuity? Or does this have to be reauthorized every year?
Pallone: Well, the authorization is in perpetuity, but the funding for the larger bill is over 10 years. But for the 21st Century Cures the National Institute of Health the moonshot funding and the opioid funding is upfront. So for example, when I gave you that $1 billion for opioid that’s over the next two years. So some of it, particularly the opioid and the moonshot is more up front. The other money is spread out over 10 years. So, basically the life of this bill is about 10 years, but much of it is more up front.
Williams: Very quickly, this bill has been largely bipartisan. Does this bode well for Congress working together?
Pallone: Well, Mary Alice I always tell you and others that most of what we do is bipartisan and I’m not blaming the media but you know of course the media does focus on a lot of times when we fight. I can’t stress enough that 80 or 90 percent of what I do on my committee wither it’s opioids, mental health, environmental most of it is actually bipartisan.
Williams: All right, thank you so much for being with us.