Last Tuesday, December 13th, President Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act into law. The act, which is also known as the Moonshot Bill, seeks to allocate $6.3 billion towards cancer research and drug treatment in order to combat the opioid crisis the nation has faced, and looks to introduce legislation that will streamline the process of FDA approval for life saving drugs.
The bill is seen as a parting gift for Vice President Joe Biden who lost his son last year to cancer and just as with similar bills from this administration, like the Comprehensive Addiction and Addiction and Recovery Act, it was met with widespread bipartisan approval.
In many ways, the Moonshot Bill is a continuation of the work that President Obama and his administration started back in May when he met in the Oval Office with rapper Macklemore in order to discuss the effects that opioid addiction is having on the nation. At the time, opioid addiction was becoming a talking point in the political sphere due to the increase in overdoses the country had seen over the past few years and the introduction of new and harmful opioids making their rounds on American streets. Macklemore himself, a recovering opioid addict, asked that we change the discourse on addiction in this country away from incarceration and punishment and towards education and rehabilitation.
This initial first step was then followed up with the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act which apportioned funding for medication assisted treatment in prisons and education on substance abuse. It also saw a departure from the “Just Say No” agenda that previous administrations had adopted and gave more credence to the idea that addiction is not a choice, but rather is a disease.
These first hopeful steps have now resulted in the Moonshot Bill which will provide $1 billion over the next two years in order to fight the opioid abuse problem in this country. This $1 billion is not just for law enforcement, but the money looks to expand access to treatment as well. This is an incredibly positive change because in the past, whenever a drug abuse bill made its way through congress and to the President’s desk, it was always centered on increasing funding for prisons and policing, but this is not the case with the Moonshot Bill.
The Moonshot Bill also seeks to enforce the mental health parity laws that have been implemented by the Obama administration and which were in danger of possibly being overturned by the incoming Trump administration. These laws require health insurers to cover mental health illnesses in a similar manner to how they would provide coverage for any other physical illness. For years, this was not the case and mental health illnesses were seen as separate and not given the same consideration as other medical conditions. Due to this, many health insurers would not provide the coverage needed for people suffering from mental illnesses, like substance abuse disorder, and so people were unable to get help for these life threatening illnesses.
However, not everyone is pleased with the bill and some believe that the stipulations lessening the standards by which the FDA approves new drugs will result in issues down the road. They feel that the current standards that are used for FDA approval are there for a reason and that decreasing this could result in drugs being approved that are not safe or of the quality we have come to expect.
While the main purpose of the bill is to acquire 10 years of cancer research in 5 years, it is in many aspects, a fitting closing to the watershed year we have had in regards to substance abuse. More has been done in the past 365 days towards actually tackling the issue of substance abuse in this country than in any other time in our nation. While opioid overdoses are still at an all time high, and these numbers appear to be continuing to grow, our collective understanding of drug addiction has been unalterably changed.
With the constant media attention and people like President Obama asking us to truly take a look at what substance abuse is doing to our communities, we have seen more people get on board with the idea that substance abuse is not some far off issue among weak willed people, but rather it is a problem that we all must face. We have come to understand that turning a blind eye to addicted populations or just attempting to incarcerate them into submission is a woefully misguided plan for helping curb addiction. We have also started to take a look at the prison industrial complex we have built for ourselves and started to question the logic of having non-violent drug offenders make up 50% of our prison population. These are all incredible, positive things and while we still have a long way to go in terms of making a dent in the issue of drug addiction in this country, we are certainly on our way.
As more details are released on how the 21st Century Cures Act will affect the health care system in this country, and as we begin to see its implementation, we will hopefully see a reduction in the amount of opioid overdoses and an increase in the amount of people seeking treatment. But with 2016 coming to an end, it seems fair to say that we have accomplished quite a bit this past year and with any luck, this trend will continue.