Date: May 1st, 2001
It doesn't happen often, but when it comes to boosting funding for medical research, Republicans and Democrats have found a subject on which they all can agree. This rare bipartisan agreement makes it all the more imperative that Congress accelerate its funding of research on diseases that affect older Americans.
We need only look to the graying of America's population to see why this funding is so urgently needed. Americans over age 65 use about a third of the $1.2 trillion spent on health care each year, yet federal funding for research and prevention represents just 0.3 percent of what is spent on treatment.
We stand on the threshold of unprecedented medical discoveries, thanks to advances in biotechnology like the decoding of the human genome. On the horizon are lifesaving treatments that harness the body's own ability to heal itself. We might someday be able to grow new tissue or entire replacement organs, thereby adding quality years to lives once ravaged by illness. But such advances do not come cheaply.
It has been three years since Congress was called on to double spending for the National Institutes of Health, bringing its budget to $27.3 billion by 2003. Congress responded admirably, backing major NIH funding increases for each succeeding year.
While President Bush has continued the bipartisan effort with his budget proposal for next year, he must up his ante for funding of medical research into the chronic diseases of aging if we are to double the NIH budget in the next two years.
Accordingly, the Alliance organized the formation of the 2001 Task Force for Aging Research Funding, a coalition of more than 50 nonprofit health organizations urging Congress to double the NIH budget by 2003. The Task Force issued a report to Congress in April on the need to increase the NIH budget above and beyond what President Bush asked for in his budget proposal, and outlined what the ravages of disease cost Americans and the nation's economy.
A step in the right direction already has been taken by the Senate, which voted overwhelmingly to support a $3.4 billion increase for the NIH budget. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), one of the senator's leading the way, praised the vote, calling the NIH funding priority "second to none." Specter furthered his comments by saying, "There is nothing more important than health. The National Institutes of Health have made extraordinary progress in their efforts to combat the most serious maladies which confront Americans."
Boosting NIH funding makes good economic sense. An infusion of funds aimed at treating or curing age-related conditions such as Alzheimer's or osteoporosis would be more than offset by the resulting decrease in health care costs for older Americans. For example, Alzheimer's drains more than $100 billion from the nation's economy every year, so delaying the onset of Alzheimer's by even five years has enormous cost-saving potential. And, Medicare spends an estimated $26 billion annually on recipients who have lost the ability to function independently.
President Bush aptly framed the importance of structuring budgets in a way that also help the most people when he said before the Joint Session of Congress, "A budget's impact is counted in dollars, but is measured in lives." While no truer statement could be made, it gives cause for thought. Why, for example, does the government continue funneling some $40 billion into the Marine Corps' V-22 Osprey program — an operation that has left 23 Marines dead following two helicopter crashes in the last year — when the need for adequate funding of biomedical research is so much greater?
Without adequate research into the conditions that rob older individuals of their independence, health costs for those aged 75 or older are projected to grow six-fold in the next 30 years. Preventive disease research today is the best insurance that tomorrow's seniors will be able to live longer, healthier lives.