Although few will remember, Jack Klugman was a strong advocate for critical health-care legislation.
Jack Klugman, the actor best known for his roles on The Odd Couple, and Quincy, M.E., passed away on Christmas Eve at the age of 90. Although these roles are what most people will remember Klugman for, another and I would argue much more important role he played was in pushing critical health-care legislation, the Orphan Drug Act, through Congress in the 1980’s. “Orphan” diseases are those illnesses that do not strike enough people to make it advantageous for drug companies to develop treatments. These include such debilitating illnesses as Tourette’s syndrome, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, spina bifida, ALS and many more. As The Washington Post reports,
The issue of orphan diseases was so obscure that only a single newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, sent a reporter to the hearing … But the article caught the eye of a Hollywood writer and producer named Maurice Klugman, who himself suffered from a rare cancer and also happened to be Jack Klugman’s brother. Maurice Klugman wrote an episode of “Quincy” about Tourette’s and the orphan drug problem.
Representative Henry Waxman (D-California) hoped to capitalize on the publicity and invited Jack Klugman to testify before Congress. Although in current times we are accustomed to seeing movie stars, athletes and musicians on Capitol Hill, in the early 1980’s having a celebrity testify before Congress was a big deal. Such a huge deal in fact,
The New York Times ran a front-page story on Klugman and orphan diseases. That led to a bill with three big incentives for drug makers: a lighter regulatory burden for developing new orphan drugs, a seven-year monopoly, and a 90-percent tax credit for the cost of clinical trials. It also established an Office of Rare Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
The bill met with no opposition in the House, but ran into trouble once it was presented to the Senate. In response to the Senate’s blocking of the bill, Jack Klugman and his brother Maurice wrote a second Quincy episode, concerning an orphan drug bill that was being stopped by a ‘heartless (fictitious) senator.’ After this second episode aired, the Senate relented and in 1983 thanks in no small part to Klugman, the Waxman-Hatch Orphan Drug Act was signed into law.
In an ending Hollywood might have scripted, it has been a remarkable success. The FDA has approved more than 300 orphan drugs, with 1,100 more under development. One of the first developed under the law was AZT, the early AIDS treatment. Two years later, Congress expanded the law to include biological and chemical drugs, which helped spur the biotech industry.
Mr. Klugman will most surely be recognized for the very human characters he played on T.V., but his legacy is many faceted and reaches much further than many will remember.