As the Obama administration implemented $85 billion in cuts to federal spending for the 2013 fiscal year, Americans could only watch and wait to see how their daily lives could be affected by massive downgrades. Some of the sickest people in the country waited to see if they would be able to stay on state- or federally-funded health insurance programs.
But as far as health care goes, the most significant cuts were not made to Medicare. Instead, public health and medical research facilities and programs were slammed with a 5.2% budget cut, with 8.2% scheduled to be cut in 2014. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), one of the world's leading medical research facilities, will have to wave goodbye to $1.6 billion dollars over the next seven months, leaving top researchers without necessary grants and these doctors' worst-off patients without the care they need to survive.
When people's lives fall in the balance; when American doctors are infinitesimally close to finding significant treatment options for patients with incurable diseases; and when the United States has only the 38th best health care system in the world behind countries like Oman (#8), Colombia (#22), and Saudi Arabia (#26); this must be our call. These cuts to necessary programs and research facilities are dangerous, and millions of people are at risk of poorer quality of life if these cuts persist.
Even before the sequester, research funding was at an all-time low. In 2011, less than 18% of those who applied for NIH grants were able to receive funding, compared to 30% between 1998 and 2003. These scientists and doctors rely on this funding to continue necessary research of rare conditions and all types of cancers. Now, they are relying more and more on private grants to keep their facilities afloat, but as the demand for these grows, there just isn't enough money to go around.
Earlier this month, thousands of medical researchers and advocates gathered in Washington to participate in the Rally for Medical Research. Along with several politicians, speakers included Margaret Foti, the CEO of the American Association for Cancer Research, and Donna Arnett, the president of the American Heart Association.
"Unless we restore NIH funding now, the treatment or cure you or your family will desperately need in the future may never be discovered," said Arnett. "We will not give up this fight."
If NIH ends up losing all of the funding that is projected — $12.5 billion dollars — the country could see as many as 500,000 jobs be forced into nonexistence, and could lose $860 billion in economic growth. To compare, when the federal government invested in the human genome project from 1988 to 2003, we saw a nearly $800 billion rise in economic activity.
Already, researchers, doctors, and scientists are being laid off to account for the future lack of funding. Several major projects, many involving chronic illnesses in children, are being put on hold until funding can be found to continue them.
"They are doing cuts on top of cuts on top of cuts," said Eric Hoffman, director of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children's National Medical Center in Washington.
According to Research America, a nonprofit education and advocacy group arguing in support of scientific research, the sequester will also negatively affect the effectiveness and approval time of new drugs by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While the FDA has been working tirelessly to speed up these processes, the sequester will undoubtedly slow them down. So while the few researchers that remain are discovering new treatments at the pace that their scarce funding will provide, the entity that can get this drug to the public will not be able to approve the drugs as quickly as is needed.
In a time when the potential for medical breakthroughs has never been greater, the thought of putting off life-saving treatments is terrifying. The public health sector has already had to cut hundreds of thousands of jobs in the last five years, with state health departments losing funding by the billions. When facing such insurmountable odds, it is no wonder that one doctor who attended the Rally for Medical Research had this to say after the fact:
"I am very pleased to have gone, although I am going to have to face reality in that the funding may not come back."
In a profession where accepting defeat means the lives of millions are at stake, it should scare us to see that those who take care of us at our worst aren't sure if their jobs will be relevant in a few short years.