House backs terminal patients’ right to try experimental drugs

Originally published in the Salem Register-Guard by Jonathan Cooper

SALEM — The House voted Tuesday to make Oregon the latest state seeking to give dying patients a chance to try experimental medical treatments that haven’t been approved by government regulators.

The bill passed the House without opposition, sending it to the Senate, though it’s not clear that any drug companies would be willing to distribute experimental treatments outside the strict safety requirements of controlled studies.

The sponsor, Republican Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend, said it would give patients hope. The wealth of information now available on the Internet has exposed modern patients to far more information than they used to have, he said.

“In the past, a lot of terminal patients didn’t know that these trials were available,” Buehler said. “It really increases the anxiety for someone with these horrible illnesses when they know there’s a treatment out there but they can’t get access to it.”

The “right to try” bill would allow patients who are at least 15 years old to ask drugmakers for access to experimental treatments that have completed the first phase of clinical trials and haven’t been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug ­Administration.

Insurance companies would not be required to cover the drug or complications that arise from using it, and doctors would be shielded from liability.

Right to try bills are advocated by the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Phoenix, Ariz. Thirteen states have adopted the legislation since May, including eight this year, said Craig Handzlik, state policy coordinator for the Goldwater Institute.

Oregon’s bill, HB 2300, would be the only one to include an age restriction, Handzlik said, and he’s hopeful the Senate will remove it.

The FDA does a good job of keeping unsafe drugs off the market, Handzlik said, but the process fails dying patients who could possibly benefit.

The FDA offers a ­“compassionate use” process allowing patients who aren’t part of clinical trials to get access to experimental drugs, but critics say the process requires too much paperwork and takes too long.

“The bureaucracy and the red tape there is really prohibitive for patients who don’t have a lot of time left,” ­Handzlik said.