Sunday, March 25, 2007

The SB771 Debate: White Knights vs. Greedy Big Pharma?

"Mom and Apple Pie" – that's one way to look at the latest legislation to step into the affairs of the uniquely independent California stem cell agency.

The bill is crafted in such a way that it is difficult to oppose. In other words, it is virtually a "motherhood" bill. After all, who can be against the state of California receiving a fair share of the perceived bountiful booty from the $3 billion in state-financed research? Oppose that and you can be tarred with the brush of greedy Big Pharma.

We are not talking about the details of SB771. That involves the nitty gritty of intellectual property, a daunting and dense subject for the media, not to mention your average reader. It is easier to cast this as battle between avaricious Big Business and the White Knights who protect the public. Lawmakers do not want to be seen as voting in favor of $100,000-a-year treatments that would not have existed without state-financed research.

Whether or not Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, and lead author of the bill will choose to play it that way, some of the other interests involved may do so. We cannot say what Kuehl's strategy is, but all accounts, she is a very smart woman (Harvard grad and former law professor) and politically astute. As chair of the Senate Health Committee and veteran activist and politico, she knows what it takes to succeed with legislation.

Previous legislation involving CIRM was more complex, giving more people more reasons to oppose it. That's not to minimize the complexity of Kuehl's measure, but at its heart it is quite simple – give the people of California a share and help out the ailing poor. Wasn't that the promise in the Prop. 71 campaign?

The opposition is likely to be led by the California Healthcare Institute, which represents the biomedical industry. The industry is not a minor player in the Capitol and can use its resources well. But it will have to step smartly to avoid being tagged as greedy.

The scenario begins to play out in the second week of April with the first hearing on the bill by the Health Committee on April 11, the day after the Oversight Committee of the stem cell institute meets in Sacramento. As part of the day's activities, members of the 29-member panel are expected to visit some legislators to discuss areas of mutual interest.

In a case of adroit timing, California stem cell chairman Robert Klein is scheduled to speak to the Sacramento Press Club on April 9, two days ahead of the April 11 hearing. CIRM has also scheduled its own hearing into IP issues on April 9 in Sacramento. We say adroit because Klein's talk and the hearing will help frame the issues in the media ahead of the Senate hearing, if the events are covered. That is a big if. IP is a boring news topic in the minds of most editors and reporters. CIRM issues are a third tier media matter at best in the Capitol. Witness the extremely light coverage of CIRM this past year with the rare exceptions of occasions when buckets of money were rolled out (grant approvals by the CIRM Oversight Committee). Arnold's contretempts with Rush are much higher on the California news agenda, although nearly meaningless.

With four stem cell events in one week in Sacramento, news editors are likely to cover one and not the rest. The earliest may get the media worm.

With a super, super-majority vote (70 percent) required in both houses, Kuehl's bill likely will find tough sledding. On March 16, in Los Angeles at the Oversight Committee meeting, we asked Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez about the measure. He was there for a news conference touting CIRM's good works. But he said he knew nothing about Kuehl's bill. To win a 70 percent vote in the Assembly, he will have to know more.

For those of you interested in the real stuff of IP, CIRM has posted some advance material concerning its IP hearing April 9. Among the issues CIRM wants to address are the following:
"Is there a reference or scheme in another body of law that would provide a workable formula to price drugs purchased in California that have been developed with CIRM-funded patented inventions?

"What mechanisms exist that can be used to formulate the price of non-drug therapies provided to Californians?

"Is the term 'public funds' sufficiently precise to capture the universe of purchasers intended in the scope of regulation 100406?

"What comparables would be used by which the “access plans” referenced in regulations 100406 and 100408 be assessed?
Written comments may be submitted directly to CIRM if you are unable to attend the hearing.

Here are links to additional background on the legislation. "Tall Hurdle," "Open Kimono," "CIRM IP Legislation."

(Editor's note: An earlier version of this item said the Oversight Committee meeting was April 11. It is scheduled for April 10.) Sphere: Related Content

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