Senate Committee Holds Hearing: “Saving Lives Through Medical Research”

While Congress has not yet completed its work on fiscal year (FY) 2017 appropriations, Congressional committees have begun holding hearing on agencies’ FY 2018 budgets. On March 8, the Senate Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies (Labor-HHS) held a hearing, “Saving Lives Through Medical Research,” to discuss the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Hearing witnesses included Thomas J. Grabowski, Jr., University of Washington School of Medicine; Timothy J. Eberlein, Washington University, St. Louis; Jennifer M. Sasser, University of Mississippi Medical Center; and Stacey Schultz-Cherry, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Opening the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) acknowledged the “difficult spending choices” before the Congress but emphasized the need to “continue to firmly establish our commitment” to NIH. Blunt cited as examples of the NIH’s accomplishments the advances in cancer “eighty years since Congress established the National Cancer Institute (NCI)” and those in cardiovascular disease since the 1940s.

The chairman noted the bipartisan $2 billion increase in the NIH’s budget in FY 2016 and stressed that “consistent, sustained increases in funding are critical.” He also noted that the “way to begin a pattern” is to provide another $2 billion increase for NIH in FY 2017. He thanked Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-WA) for her support in achieving this goal, highlighting that in FY 2017 the Subcommittee passed its first bipartisan bill in seven years, which provided another $2 billion increase for NIH.

Ranking Member Murray noted that the Subcommittee’s investments “help keep families and communities healthy by supporting programs that reduce infant mortality, train our doctors and nurses, provide care in rural communities and prevent the spread of infectious diseases.” She noted the President’s proposed FY 2018 budget (see related article), which would cut non-defense spending by $54 billion, citing it as a “very real threat to the committee’s ability to fund future increases in NIH to sustain its research efforts.” Specifically, Murray emphasized that such a cut would “require devastating cuts to the education, health and training programs,” under the Subcommittee’s jurisdiction. However, under such circumstances, Murray stressed that she could not see how NIH, which accounts for 20 percent of the Labor-HHS appropriations bill, “will avoid being affected.” She also expressed her concern regarding the potential elimination of the Prevention and Public Health Fund (PPHF) as part of efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Among other things, the Fund provides resources to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to make grants to programs in states and communities focused on prevention, early detection, and treatment of high blood pressure.

Both the full Committee Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MI) and Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT) attended the Subcommittee’s hearing on NIH. Cochran highlighted NIH’s Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program designed to broaden the geographical distribution of federal research to institutions like the University of Mississippi. He explained that the IDeA program provides resources for faculty development and assists in increasing the research capacity of program recipients. He expressed support for maintaining progress made as the result of the program “when challenged to accommodate demands for limited taxpayer dollars.” Leahy echoed Cochran and noted that a “big national priority is medical research.” He also emphasized the critical nature of medical research funding to the University of Vermont, not only for “creating new medical advancements but for attracting the best faculty members and researchers” to the state. Unfortunately, Leahy noted, the progress made “is in jeopardy as medical research funding and so many other programs are in the crosshairs” in FY 2018. Leahy argued that “medical research cannot be turned on and off…the ups and downs of the budget are particularly harmful” when it comes to medical research.

Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) applauded the Subcommittee’s “history-making” effort of funding NIH, noting the bipartisan nature of the effort. He also applauded the supplemental funding provided in the 21st Century Cures Act and thanked Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Murray for their leadership. Alexander is Chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which has oversight over the agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services; Senator Murray is its Ranking Member.

Alexander, noting that there is little bipartisan agreement in the Congress, highlighted the one thing Congress can agree on is “the importance of biomedical research.” He cited his hope that Congress can “approve the appropriation soon” for FY 2017. He also noted the commitment of the HELP committee to future funding for NIH.

Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS) observed that the progress made under Chairman Cochran’s leadership in regard to support for NIH research would be a “pyrrhic victory” if there is no Labor-HHS appropriations bill and there is another continuing resolution for FY 2017. He emphasized the “growing recognition that we have an opportunity to do something this year.” Moran encouraged Cochran and Blunt and his Democratic colleagues to “make sure that it is not a missed opportunity.” Moran also noted that Kansas participates in NIH’s IDeA, Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE), and Minority Biomedical Research Support (MBRS) programs. He highlighted the importance of the programs to Kansas.

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