Among the silver linings tied to COVID-19’s unquestionably dark cloud: Regulators removed roadblocks that typically block vaccines from reaching people as quickly as possible.
The future could look even brighter if government leaders apply the same scrutiny to other costly, time-consuming regulations.
The principle applies beyond health care. North Carolina’s junior U.S. senator recently explained how.
“If I were in person, I would have my 600-page request for proposal for the next-generation handgun with me — it’s my favorite prop when we have a confirmation like this,” said Republican Sen. Thom Tillis during online remarks Jan. 19. Tillis was addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee. The committee was considering the nomination of retired four-star Army Gen. Lloyd Austin as the new secretary of defense.
“It just confounds me to think it took 10 years to procure the next-generation handgun,” Tillis said. “And it’s going to take 10 years to deploy it. To me it suggests the fundamental problem with the way we go about acquisitions and procurements in the Department of Defense.”
“So I would just seek your commitment, if confirmed, if you’re going to have the kind of resources around you that are going to drill down across the business of the DOD and figure out … if we’re now at a point to where we can go from an investigational new drug to an approved vaccine in 11 months, it would seem to me that we could get to a point where we can specify certain procurements in the DOD in terms of months or years, not decades.”
“Do I have your commitment to make sure that you make this a priority — that you have someone there that has the experience and insight to figure out how we get more productivity and I think more sanity in our procurement processes?” Tillis asked Austin.
“You have my commitment, senator,” the general answered within a heartbeat.
Now that the Senate has confirmed Austin’s appointment, it will be interesting to see whether Tillis’ plea leads to any noticeable improvement in Defense Department procedures. As in the case of COVID-19 vaccines, bureaucratic delays in developing new military weapons could spell the difference between life and death in some cases.
The discussion focused specifically on regulation of the pharmaceutical industry. “I would say it does intuitively sound right,” Stossel said of regulation. “I don’t want some snake-oil seller to sell me something that might hurt me. They’re all looking to make money. They’re all greedy. And it’s nice that the [Food and Drug Administration] is there to make sure it’s safe and effective.”
“But think about it,” Stossel added. “A few years back they said, ‘Oh, we’re going to approve this new heart drug, and it’ll save 14,000 American lives a year.’ And all the reporters said, ‘Great.’ But it takes 10 years and $1 billion to get a drug approved. So if they’re saving 14,000 this year with the new drug, didn’t that mean they killed 14,000 people last year and the year before that — back 10 years?”
“It did mean that,” Stossel said. “But you don’t think that way. You only think about how you’re being protected. You don’t think about all the life-saving stuff we don’t get because this process is so burdensome.”
The conversation pivoted to a larger libertarian theme. “Are we free, or are we not?” Stossel asked. “Don’t you own your own body? If you’re dying of a terminal illness, you’re not allowed to experiment with a drug in America. You have to break your country’s laws and sneak to some other country. Isn’t that anti-freedom?”
Yes. But one need not sign on to Stossel’s brand of libertarian thought to predict benefits from scaling back overly burdensome regulations.
It’s a task forward-thinking leaders in North Carolina’s General Assembly will approach in this new session of the General Assembly. As they consider immediate needs for COVID-19 relief, they also will look for ways to extend temporary COVID-related regulatory rollbacks.
Legislators are also likely to look into other permanent changes that will boost access to life-saving health care. Expect more discussion of removing barriers for technology-based health options. Debate will resume over repealing certificate-of-need restrictions. Lawmakers will consider expanding scope of practice for skilled health care workers.
None of these changes will blow away the dark cloud of COVID-19. But each could make for a brighter silver lining for North Carolina in the years ahead.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.