Date: October 1st, 2005
It’s that time again, the annual struggle over funding for the National Institutes of Health. The latest negotiations between the House and Senate yielded a proposal for an NIH budget increase of one-half of one percent for fiscal year 2006, the smallest increase since the 1970s. But, just before the Thanksgiving recess, the House rejected the bill. The following day, the Senate voted to send the bill back to a conference committee to reach an acceptable compromise.
The Good News
When the Senate sent this bill back to conference, it also urged conferees to seek increased funding for important health and education programs, specifically singling out NIH. Specifically, the Senate called for the restoration of the $29.4 billion budget, an increase of 3.7 percent.
What’s the Big Deal?
The rejected bill included a small increase that would fall more than two percent short of even keeping pace with inflation. Such an increase actually equates to a budget cut when adjusted for today’s dollars. According to Rep. David Obey (D-WI), the budget as it stands would result in the NIH funding 505 fewer research grants than it had funded two years earlier. Additional spending cuts could take an even larger bite out of the federal funding for research on Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other illnesses that burden our elderly population with disability and mounting medical costs.
The NIH has its own scientists and also awards grants to fund the work of others. Much of what the NIH funds is basic research—research purely for the sake of more fully understanding a particular area of science. While private research is also vital to the public interest, researchers in the private sector are under more pressure to produce science with more immediate results. Government-funded science establishes priorities based on the larger picture of public health in this country.
Medical researchers must be able to adapt to a changing environment and focus on the health care concerns on the horizon. As the Baby Boomer generation approaches retirement age, a new health care crisis is looming—one our health care system must be prepared to address.
Each year, conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and neurological disease kill more than 1.7 million people and disable a fourth of those living with such conditions. These conditions may require ongoing, often expensive, medical care. Because chronic disease affects the elderly population at such a high rate, the burden this type of condition places on society only stands to get much worse as our nation ages.
Prescription use, doctor visits, and hospitalization by people with chronic disease account for three-fourths of this country’s annual spending on health care. Our society can pay these mounting costs as more and more people are faced with these diseases, or we can invest in science that reduces the burden of not only this health care crisis, but those that lie ahead, beyond the understanding we have today.
Historically, the critical nature of the work performed and funded by the National Institutes of Health has outweighed partisan politics. The advances made in medical care when health research is adequately funded have provided outcomes that both sides could agree on.
Past successes from NIH-supported research include the near-eradication of infectious diseases whooping cough and rubella, and a dramatic decrease in death rates from heart disease and stroke. More recently, legislators committed in the late 1990s to doubling the NIH budget over five years. As a result of this fiscal infusion, researchers discovered a correlation between age-related mental decline and smoking. They also identified a protein in the blood that may predict Lupus disease years before the disease appears. And, they discovered genes that may lead to increased risk of developing schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder.
The public health issues our nation faces are too important to be left to chance. The NIH must be adequately funded to continue its support of research that benefits all of us.
The Fight Isn’t Over
Despite the Senate’s rejection of this bill, NIH’s funding is far from spared. House lawmakers must be convinced to take part in a conference – and, then, persuaded that we must commit to aggressively funding research that can protect and improve our nation’s health.