PolitiFact Fl. Checks Out Rubio's Voting Record; And Getting An Experimental Drug

Sep 7, 2016

There were lots of times during the recent presidential debates where Marco Rubio was taken to task for missing more than his share of votes in the Senate. But does he have the worst voting record of any Florida senator in half a century? WUSF's Steve Newborn looks into that and a claim that Rubio helped a woman get an experimental drug, with Josh Gillin of PolitiFact Florida.

The voting record of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was front and center during his run for president. It became something of a standard campaign pitch by his fellow candidates.

So naturally, when Rubio decided to forego his quest for the presidency and run for re-election, his voting record became campaign fodder once again. "Sen. Rubio has the worst vote attendance record of any Florida senator in nearly 50 years," his challenger, Democrat Patrick  Murphy, said in an Aug. 31, 2016, statement.

PolitiFact Florida checks on the accuracy of that:

Rubio’s overall absentee rate — the percentage of all the votes he’s missed during his first term — is 14.5 percent.

That’s considerably higher than the 1.7 percent average absentee rate among all senators in the same time period.

His counterpart, Democrat Bill Nelson, has a 2.2 percent absentee rate since 2001, and 3.3 percent since Rubio took office in 2011.

As Murphy’s campaign said, the last senator from Florida to exceed Rubio’s rate was George Smathers, a Democrat who had a 23.6 percent absentee rate over his 18 years in office.

We’ll note there was a significant uptick in missed votes during the end of Smathers’ last term, from 1966 onward, which is 50 years ago. He missed 435 of 835 votes, or more than 52 percent, during his final four years. After that, Smathers declined to run for re-election and became a lobbyist.

Rubio has the highest absentee rate since Smathers, who left office in 1969. There are plenty of ways to slice the data: Some senators missed more votes overall, and his record is largely in line with other presidential candidates from the U.S. Senate. It’s important to keep those points in mind, but the roll call has been recorded.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

Next up - and sticking with Sen. Rubio -  in a campaign ad released Aug. 18, Blanquita Trabold of Orlando recounted how Rubio came to her family’s aid as her grown child suffered from terminal breast cancer.

Here's PolitiFact Florida's take on his claim:

As Trabold described how her daughter’s condition worsened, the screen read, "Doctors recommended a drug that was still in FDA trials. Senator Rubio worked with the FDA to get it."

"I called Sen. Rubio. I said, ‘This drug has not been approved by the FDA. But if you can get it, perhaps we can save my daughter’s life.’ He got me the medication within a week," she continued. "Thanks to Marco, I had three more months of my daughter. Marco Rubio was there for me when I needed him the most."

We hadn’t heard this account of Rubio helping a constituent get an experimental drug before, and there were no news accounts of the case. We wanted to see whether Rubio did intervene, and how fast it happened.

We can’t put the ad on the Truth-O-Meter, however, because we can’t independently verify the story beyond what Trabold and Rubio say. It’s not as if Rubio himself single-handedly got a special medication from the FDA, but his office does appear to have performed a constituent service for the Trabolds.

Maria Theresa Trabold — or Terrie, as her mother called her — was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 35 on July 7, 1998.

Rubio’s Senate office told us that they contacted the FDA on April 24, 2012, the same day as Blanquita Trabold’s visit, to see if the agency would grant the Trabolds what’s known as a compassionate use request. Also referred to as expanded access, the process allows licensed doctors to obtain a drug being investigated for approval if a physician thinks the medication would be helpful, or in emergencies.

The FDA provided Rubio’s office with some preliminary questions for the family, which the office then relayed. By May 10, Rubio’s office asked the FDA to contact Terrie’s doctor in San Antonio, which the agency did the next day.

The doctor, not the patient, must submit an application to the FDA to allow the unapproved drug to go to the patient. The company manufacturing the drug ultimately decides whether to provide the drug.

The length of the process depends on the case, an FDA spokeswoman told us, but the agency grants 99 percent of compassionate use requests. Approval can happen in just days, or even over the phone in emergency cases. The FDA said that in cases where patients aren’t able to get the drug they want, it’s because the manufacturer will not supply it.

A Genentech spokeswoman said the company is "not familiar with Maria Theresa Trabold's case or the claims made by Marco Rubio." Privacy laws would prevent them from sharing specifics even if they did, the company said, although it did confirm Genentech has a compassionate use program.

The FDA also would not comment on Terrie Trabold’s application, or any other specific case. But it’s also not unusual for patients, their families or even members of Congress to initiate contact with the FDA on behalf of constituents to obtain unapproved drugs for compassionate use purposes, an agency spokesperson said.

Trabold couldn’t immediately recall the name of her daughter’s doctor in San Antonio, who would have been the one who turned in the application to the FDA. 

Rubio’s office said Trabold told them on May 22 that the compassionate use request had been approved.