La Jolla, Calif. _ The financial drought haunting biotechnologycompanies and the continuing uncertainty over federal heath carereform were two of the top woes hanging heavily over the annualCalBioSummit meeting Wednesday.And perhaps not surprising for an alliance of San Diego biosciencegroups best known for building and wielding political clout, manysolutions suggested by a panel of industry experts lie in thelegislative arena. Among the proposals were stepping up federalresearch funding, limiting shareholder lawsuits against companies,smoothing FDA product reviews and encouraging investment inbiotechnology companies through tax law changes.Forging contacts with lawmakers was a tact applauded by CarlFeldbaum, president of the Washington-based BiotechnologyIndustry Association (BIO) and a panelist for the CalBioconference. He held up the close cooperation between San Diego'sbiotechnology executives and U.S. Rep. Lynn Schenk (D-Calif.) asthe template for the sort of relationships biotechnology companiesnationwide should form with the congressional representatives.Schenk played a pivotal role in removing from President Clinton'sstalled health care proposal plans for an advisory committee ondrug pricing, said Kenneth Widder, chairman and CEOr ofMolecular Biosystems Inc. (MBI), of San Diego. Widder also ispresident of the Biomedical Industry Council of San Diego. (Formore on Schenk's biotechnology-related activities, see BioWorldToday, Aug. 11, 1994, Page 1.)While health care reform awaits the arrival of a new Congress inJanuary, the issue is being placed in the hands of California votersin November.Proposition 186 on next month's ballot, which proposed a versionof the Canadian, single-payer health insurance for the nation's mostpopulous state, poses more of a symbolic than a real threat tobiotechnology companies."The polls indicate that it's not doing well," said JohnVasconcellos, the powerful chairman of the California Assembly'sWays and Means Committee and a panelist. "But, there's anundercurrent of demand for coverage" in a state where more thanone quarter of the population, roughly 8 million people, has nomedical coverage.Still, MBI's Widder issued a call to arms for industry officials towork toward the defeat of Proposition 186. "This could bedevastating for biotechnology companies," he said. The single-payer approach threatens to stifle innovation and would furtherdampen the investment climate for biotechnology, he said.Noting the sometimes unpredictable nature of the Californiaelectorate, Widder warned: "California is already known for settingnational trends in property taxesBut the best defense could be a good offense, in Feldbaum's view.He said he hopes to use biotechnology's new found support inCongress to introduce legislation to aid innovation, small businessinvestment and be "biotech friendly." He was not specific aboutwhat form such bills might take."The industry was really not politically mature before thiswrenching experience over health care," Feldbaum said. "In thecourse of the health care debate, biotechnology probably made 75new friends in Congress."Among the current legislative concerns cited by Widder were:* An attempt to improve the performance of the FDA in House Rule4728, which he said could come up for a House vote during thesession.* An effort to limit lawsuits filed against companies by holders ofnewly issued stock in Senate Bill 1976.* And a long-standing effort to reform medical malpractice laws.
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In keeping with San Diego's efforts to link local politics tobiotechnology, San Diego Mayor Susan Golding was named co-chairman to a newly formed Mayor's Biotechnology Caucus of theU.S. Conference of Mayors.Golding is joined by Cleveland Mayor Michael White andPhiladelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. n
-- Ray Potter Special to BioWorld Today
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