ASHINGTON — Several deep-pocketed political advocacy groups founded by Charles and David Koch are ramping up their advocacy before Congress on a niche issue: access to experimental drugs.
On Monday, several Koch-backed groups, including Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity, launched an ad campaign urging Congress to pass so-called “right-to-try” legislation, which aims to help terminally ill patients access experimental treatments that haven’t yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The Senate unanimously passed a right-to-try bill from Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) last August, but it has since stalled in the House.
Supporters, including lawmakers on Capitol Hill and other off-the-Hill advocates, are focusing their efforts this month on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which would likely have to clear the legislation before the full House could vote on it.
The new ad campaign — also sponsored by Generation Opportunity and The LIBRE Initiative — directly addresses Congress, saying at the end of one commercial, “Congress, give patients a chance. Pass right to try.” In addition to a series of digital ads focused on D.C. and key congressional districts, the campaign will include lobbying efforts by the groups, according to a press release. In a letter sent Monday to Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.), executives wrote, “We strongly urge your committee to act expeditiously to approve Right to Try legislation and send the bill to the House Floor for a full vote.”
Johnson told STAT he’s doing everything he can this month to get the legislation passed, and suggested the vice president might become even more engaged. Vice President Mike Pence has supported right-to-try efforts since he signed a similar law as governor of Indiana.
“The commitment and involvement of the vice president are going to be very important here,” Johnson told STAT last month. “We’re going to do everything we can in January to get everyone on board so we can get this thing passed.”
Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), the lead sponsor of House right-to-try legislation, wrote in an op-ed last month that he had “been promised a floor vote in January.”
But Walden told STAT in late December that the issue had not come up in his conversations with Pence and he seemed skeptical of the idea of moving the Senate-passed bill without changes. He was similarly skeptical at a hearing on the issue last year.
“We want to make sure that it’s written so it works, and we’ve been evaluating different state laws to see if they’ve even been used,” Walden told STAT, suggesting several state laws had never been used. “If that’s the case, then, what is it we need to do to take care of these patients that have been given basically a fatal diagnosis so that they can access drugs that are in trial that show promise? That is tricky to get right, and if indeed the state laws are not being used very much, then the last thing I want to do is give false hope to families and dying patients that somehow they’ll have a new access when in fact they may not.”
Opponents of the legislation point out that 38 states already have similar laws on the books. They also note that the FDA itself has a pathway for approving individual patients’ requests for access to experimental therapies. The FDA approves about 99 percent of those requests, often within a short time frame. Advocates, however, say they need the federal legislation to ensure the FDA and other federal agencies don’t interfere with the state laws.
At an October hearing, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb warned that Johnson’s bill, as written, would broaden access to experimental therapies so much that it might weaken FDA’s drug approval process.