It's the Senate's turn to work on medical cures legislation, now that the House has overwhelmingly approved its sweeping new bill.
Aides and lobbyists don't expect a final bill until next year at the earliest, with the Senate expected to pass its own version later this year and then merge it with the House bill. And there will be many issues for lawmakers to work out — such as how much extra funding to give federal agencies for the research, development and approval of new treatments, and how to pay for it.
As chairman of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., will head up the effort's next phase. Five groups of committee members are meeting weekly to discuss what the bill should contain.
"The Senate is on a parallel track with the House and hopes to have legislation by the end of the year," a senior GOP aide said.
While partisanship has marked most healthcare discussions in Congress over the last five years, as lawmakers hotly debate Obamacare, the cures effort has brought most together in a rare bipartisan fashion.
It started about 18 months ago, when Reps. Fred Upton and Diana DeGette teamed up to explore how the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration could hasten the discovery, development and approval of cutting-edge medical cures, including new, targeted cures based on a person's genetic makeup and treatments for rare diseases.
The Senate HELP Committee is expected to release a draft bill in August or September. Aides say Alexander is planning several hearings on the effort, including three focused on electronic medical records.
That's one area the Senate version is likely to focus on that the House bill doesn't — helping doctors transition to digital records instead of paper. Modernizing medical records has been a slow process, even though it promises to massively benefit both doctors and medical researchers.
The scope of a Senate HELP bill also could be narrower than the House version, as that chamber's parallel committee — Energy and Commerce — has broader jurisdiction than HELP. And in the Senate, it's the Finance Committee that holds the reins of Medicare and Medicaid, two federal insurance programs that also saw some reforms in the House bill.
Senators are also likely to ditch the biggest funding mechanism in the House bill, which raises $7 billion by selling U.S. oil reserves. A big reason that funding stream made it into the House version is because it's one of the resources available within the Energy and Commerce Committee's purview, Upton said last week.
The 2016 elections could present an obstacle to a final cures bill, as some Republican senators trying to keep their seats are reportedly concerned about looking as though they're overreaching.
And while the White House is largely positive about the House bill, it also expressed some worries that its longer exclusivity period for drug makers could raise drug costs and policies to bring drugs to market faster could undermine regulatory standards.
Yet the bill gained wide, bipartisan support in the House, where it passed 344-77 on Friday, and more than 700 groups have endorsed it, including nearly all the leading medical associations.
"It's time now we as a nation got serious about curing the major diseases that are affecting this country," Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said Friday. "I am more passionate about this bill and excited about passing the 21st Century Cures bill than anything I voted on since I've been in Congress."