Capitol Alert

Dying Californians could get experimental drugs under “right to try” bill

Terminally ill Californians could get access to treatments not yet approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration under a bill by Assemblyman Ian Calderon, D-Whittier.

Rather than having to wait out the lengthy vetting process for new medications or devices, Californians would be able to take a gamble by obtaining treatments the FDA has not yet allowed physicians to prescribe. Assembly Bill 159 would shield doctors who offer the drugs from liability and would allow insurance companies to cover the treatment.

Calderon acknowledged the inherent risk in taking drugs that haven’t yet been greenlighted for widespread use. But he said that should be a choice left up to individuals who otherwise have few.

“I know in that situation I would want, and I’d like to live in a state that gives you, that opportunity,” Calderon said.

Whether to expand options for dying Californians already promised to occupy the Legislature this session as lawmakers introduced a bill allowing ailing people on the brink of death to take their own lives, a concept that has stalled in the past and will likely generate emotionally charged debate. Calderon said that he sees his bill as working in concert with the aid-in-dying measure, which he supports.

“There’s another option of, what if I want to live and I want to try and hit a home run, I want to swing for the fences?” Calderon said of potentially helpful treatments lacking FDA approval. “I just think we should have both options.”

Similar so-called “right to try” legislation has surfaced around the country and has been signed into law in Colorado, Louisiana and Missouri. The laws reflect a principle championed by the protagonist of the 2013 film “Dallas Buyers Club,” Ron Woodroof, who devised a system for supplying AIDS patients with drugs that hadn’t yet won U.S. approval.

Championing the idea is the conservative Goldwater Institute, which has offered model legislation in various states. Kurt Altman, the organization’s national policy adviser, said 20 different states have filed such legislation so far this year. The Goldwater Institute also approached California lawmakers, Altman said, although Calderon was not among them. Calderon said he conceived of the bill independently and did not base it on a provided blueprint.

The California Medical Association has not yet taken a position on the bill. But a spokeswoman said the doctors’ organization has reservations about circumventing an approval method that exists to protect patients.

“While the FDA process can be slow, CMA feels it is the appropriate way to address patient safety concerns as part of the risk/benefit evaluation when treating illness,” CMA spokeswoman Molly Weedn said in an email. “Sick, vulnerable and trusting patients deserve the highest quality of care and safeguards from false hopes and potentially fraudulent schemes.”

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

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