Rhode Island considers "right to try" experimental drugs

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — The Rhode Island House of Representatives has passed a bill that would allow terminally ill patients to use experimental drugs not yet approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The bill's sponsor, Warwick Democratic Rep. Joseph McNamara, said the "right to try" bill is about "giving patients hope and hopefully ending their despair." The House passed the bill Thursday by a 68-0 vote.

Similar legislation passed in the House last year but stalled in the Senate, where it's now being sent again.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says that 28 states have similar laws on the books but no one's tracking if any patients have taken advantage of them.

The Goldwater Institute, a libertarian advocacy group in Arizona, has pushed states to act in allowing dying patients and their doctors to use medications and other treatments that are in the trial stage but haven't met final approval by federal safety regulators. Drug manufacturers remain reluctant to take the risk of bypassing the FDA.

Maine recently became the first New England state to enact a "right to try" law. Legislation also is pending in Connecticut and New Hampshire.

The flurry of state laws may have contributed to a 2015 decision by the FDA to make it easier for physicians to seek permission to use experimental treatments while they're still being tested.

Also on Thursday, the Rhode Island Senate passed a separate bill expanding insurance coverage for some experimental drugs. The state already requires insurance to cover certain "off-label" cancer treatments but the bill would expand that requirement to patients with other diseases that are disabling or chronic and life-threatening.

Sen. William Walaska, the Warwick Democrat who sponsored the bill, is recovering from a rare blood and bone marrow disease and has referred to his legislation as part of a personal fight.

The Senate passed his bill by a 33-1 vote.

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