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Senator Seeks Last Win In Over-the-Counter Drug Bill (Corrected)

Oct. 31, 2019, 9:55 AMUpdated: Dec. 10, 2019, 5:33 PM

Sen. Johnny Isakson, before he retires at the end of the year, plans to take another shot at overhauling how over-the-counter medicines such as aspirin are regulated.

Supporters of the bill (S 2740) say they hope to help the long-time Georgia Republican, who has been in Congress for 20 years, clear his long-stalled measure this year.

“Maybe out of respect to Sen. Isakson we will finally do it,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said.

Alexander’s committee approved Isakson’s bill and seven other health measures Thursday, including ones that would reauthorize federal nursing workforce programs and address sudden infant deaths.

Johnny Isakson
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Isakson in August cited health problems in announcing his resignation plans. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2013. He said his illness was progressing and that he also was recovering from a fall and had surgery to remove a growth on one of his kidneys.

The over-the-counter bill aims to modify how nonprescription drugs, everything from Tylenol to sunscreen, are overseen by the Food and Drug Administration, a process created 45 years ago. The measure looks to speed up the process by which FDA reviews these products and creates new user fees to support the changes.

“It is past time to modernize and overhaul our woefully outdated over-the-counter drug approval process,” Isakson in a statement.

Mutual Thwarting

Speeding up the regulatory process would allow the FDA to more-easily deal with labeling and safety issues, according to a letter to lawmakers sent by the Pew Charitable Trusts and several other groups in support the legislation in June.

The latest version of the measure, which has been blocked for years over objections from members of Isakson’s own party, hews closely to what passed the House earlier this year (H.R. 269) as part of a package of bills.

Supporters say they’re hoping Isakson and other backers of the legislation can work out any sticking points.

Since late 2018, Isakson and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) were thwarting passage of each other’s legislation. Burr blocked Isakson’s over-the-counter drug bill because of frustration about the FDA’s proposed regulation to ban most electronic cigarette flavors, and Isakson blocked Burr’s pandemic bill in response.

Isakson earlier this year released his hold on the pandemic bill, which eventually was signed into law (Public Law 116-22). Burr has yet to say publicly whether he’ll end his hold on Isakson’s bill.

Burr didn’t object to approving the measure in the HELP Committee or comment on it during the hearing.

The HELP Committee also approved the:

  • Ticks: Identify, Control, and Knockout Act (S. 1657);
  • Healthy Start Reauthorization Act (S. 2619);
  • Title VIII Nursing Workforce Reauthorization Act (S. 1399);
  • Lifespan Respite Care Reauthorization Act (S. 995);
  • Scarlett’s Sunshine on Sudden Unexpected Death Act (S.1130);
  • Promoting Physical Activity for Americans Act (S. 1608); and
  • United States Public Health Service Modernization Act (S. 2629).
(Fixes bill number in second paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Ruoff in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at; Robin Meszoly at; Jonathan Nicholson at