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'Right To Try' expansion, other healthcare regulations pass NC Senate committee

State Senate chamber
Dave DeWitt
File photo of N.C. General Assembly in Raleigh, 2021.

State lawmakers want to expand North Carolina's "Right To Try" law that allows some patients to try experimental drugs or medical treatments.

The legislature passed the first "Right To Try" law in 2015. It allows doctors to provide some medications and treatments that aren't approved by the Federal Drug Administration. Only patients with terminal or life-threatening conditions are eligible.

A bill that passed its first Senate committee vote Wednesday would expand the law to new genomic and genetic treatments.

"These are treatments that are still in research and experimental phases," said Sen. Benton Sawrey, R-Johnston, the bill's sponsor. "So they have not gone through some of the necessary trials. There's an example of a medication to treat a rare brain disorder that's been approved in Europe since 2020. Patients are currently leaving the United States to go to Europe to receive that genetic treatment and then coming back here."

The bill would not require insurance to cover any of the experimental treatments, and the producer of the drug or treatment wouldn't be legally responsible if the patient dies. No one spoke against the bill.

'Healthcare Flexibility Act' faces opposition

Another healthcare bill, however, did prompt controversy and a lengthy discussion at Wednesday's Senate Health Committee meeting.

House Bill 681, in its original form that passed the House, would add North Carolina to a multi-state agreement that allows doctors licensed in other states to practice medicine here. Rep. Tim Reeder, R-Pitt and a doctor himself, said the change would help address healthcare shortages by bringing more doctors here.

That provision has bipartisan support, but the Senate has now added other healthcare regulatory changes to the bill, which is now titled the "Healthcare Flexibility Act."

One of the new provisions would give experienced nurse practitioners the ability to practice without a doctor's supervision. That proposal is similar to the long-stalled "SAVE Act," which would expand the powers of advanced-practice nurses but has faced opposition from doctors.

"Over half the country regulates nurse practitioners in this fashion, so we would be joining the vast majority of the states," said Sen. Gale Adcock, D-Wake and a nurse.

Other provisions of the bill deal with surprise medical billing, regulations for healthcare facility fees and rules for anesthesiologists.

Representatives from a variety of healthcare industry groups voiced concerns or support for the proposal, and Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, said he thinks the legislation needs more work.

"I felt like this cake is not quite baked yet, so we're not quite ready to start slicing it up and serving it," he said. "But in this format, it's not anything that I think I can support."

The bill ultimately passed the committee, with supporters noting that more tweaks are possible before it reaches final passage. The changes to nursing regulations will likely face hurdles in the House, which has not supported similar legislation in years past.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.