CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — It was the most important idea Jim Butler ever had.
The former Ohio lawmaker was 24 years old when he learned his mother had breast cancer. He was stationed at the Navy base in Kingsville, Texas, earning his pilot wings. His longtime pen pal, Melissa, had agreed to marry him and soon he would enter law school.
Butler was not a doctor, but like so many others facing a loved one’s illness, he was thrust into the wilderness of cancer treatment, where miracles often only mean a few more months of precious life.
There was no cure for his mother’s illness. There wasn’t even a hope for a cure, Butler learned. The clinical trials for breast cancer all focused on treatments. A new drug may offer a little more time. But that was it.
“Really, there was nothing that might save her,” he said.
And nothing did. Kathleen Butler died in 2001 at age 51. Seven years later, Butler’s father, Jim Butler Sr., would die of pancreatic cancer. He was 58.
Why was there no cure research? That question would weigh on the Republican after he was appointed in 2011 to fill a vacant seat in the Ohio House of Representatives. It was the beginning of a 10-year political career that would culminate in the idea for the Cure Bill.
In 2019, Ohio became the first state to pass a law that would create a multi-state commission to award vast sums of money to anyone who could eradicate the world’s most pernicious health problems.
It was like a government-run bounty program. The commission would choose at least 10 diseases that had plagued mankind for eons, such as diabetes, Alzheimer's or cancer, and offer vast sums of money to anyone who could wipe them out.
In theory, the cure wouldn’t cost taxpayers a cent. The prize would amount to each state’s five-year cost savings from no longer treating the disease. The money states spent on dialysis or insulin each year would instead be paid to the inventor of a diabetes cure, for instance.
Importantly, the creator would have to sign over the cure’s rights to the commission to receive the prize. The government body would then arrange for the treatment to be sold at cost, ensuring it was affordable for patients worldwide.
“It’s absolutely the most important bill — the most important idea — I’ve ever had,” Butler said.
After Ohio, five more states needed to pass cure bills for the commission to be created. Butler barnstormed the country to encourage other lawmakers to introduce legislation.
The idea appealed to Democrats and Republicans alike. Kentucky lawmakers held a press conference in January 2020 to tout the bill’s ability to bring cures to market. Joseph Shekarchi, the Democratic speaker of the Rhode Island House, wrote in an editorial that the state had everything to gain and nothing to lose by joining the commission.
Legislation was introduced in more than a dozen states in 2020 alone as the nation seemed on the precipice of a transformation in medical research.
Then all the bills died.
The problem with cures
It’s a flaw in the health care system — cures are bad for business.
Goldman Sachs analysts acknowledged as much in a 2018 report on genome medicine, an emerging science that could lead to “one-shot cures” for many chronic diseases.
While the technology offers “tremendous value” for patients and society, according to the report, cures could cause profits to dry up too quickly. Meanwhile, treatments that manage symptoms and keep illness at bay generate safe and steady returns.
The report pointed to the cure for Hepatitis C as an example.