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Right to Try and the Meteoric Rise of a State Issue to the National Stage

March 29, 2018

By Naomi Lopez
March 29, 2018

Today, Wisconsin became the 39th state to enact a Right to Try law, protecting the right of terminally ill patients to try investigational medicines that have not yet received full approval from the FDA. Meanwhile the story of the law’s meteoric rise on the national stage continues to captivate the nation.

Is it any wonder? In today’s political landscape, a seemingly intractable gridlock is the modus operandi in Washington, D.C. Right to Try is one of the few issues that’s brought the left and right together, helping to take a state issue to the halls of the U.S. Congress.

The Right to Try movement is obviously important to terminally ill patients and their families. But its success also provides important insights into how a patient-driven, bipartisan movement in the states made its way to national political prominence.

A recent Washington Post feature, “How ‘Right to Try’ Caught Washington’s Eye,” points out that “of 7,267 bills proposed by members of Congress over the past year, President Trump mentioned just one by name in his State of the Union address: “Right to Try” legislation allowing terminally ill patients access to drugs not fully approved if they’ve exhausted all other options.”

How did the meteoric rise of this issue occur? Now law in 39 states and under consideration at the federal level and in several additional states, the Right to Try movement has been and continues to be a bottom-up reform effort that transcends political party and specific disease. Indeed, when celebrating the enactment of Right to Try in Illinois in 2015, Senate sponsor Michael Connelly said: “Terminally ill patients now will have access to experimental drugs to help end their debilitating health conditions. This legislation was negotiated in good faith by both sides of the aisle and is a great example of what can happen when we leave partisan differences at the door in order to craft good public policy.”

Given today’s divisive political climate, the success of Right to Try is the stuff of national political headlines. But its success should come as little surprise to anyone who is a keen observer or listener of patients’ decades-long frustration over the slow pace of access to innovative treatments.

As new informational and social networks give patients access to information about treatments that are approved ahead of those in the U.S., for example, patients and their elected officials (some of whom have been inspired to support this movement as a result of their own firsthand experiences) are keenly aware of how the FDA’s current policy too often serves as more of an obstacle than a lifeline for patients who have run out of options and are now running out of time.

Patients are also keenly aware that only a select few who are wealthy and well-connected can navigate the federal red tape and bureaucracy that allows one to beg the federal government for permission to save one’s own life. That is not only antithetical to individual liberty and patient autonomy—it also undermines the important doctor-patient relationship that should be the arbiter of such important and personal decisions.

Right to Try puts the decisions of whether or not to try save one’s own life in the hands of patients and their doctors—where they rightfully belong. And that is something both patients and politicians can agree on.

Naomi Lopez is the director of healthcare policy at the Goldwater Institute.



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