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ACTION ALERT! Congress Can’t Agree on Spending Bill.
By Greg Brozeit

Congress is set to return in mid-December to finish business for this legislative year. The bill that funds most medical research in this nation, the FY 2006 Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations bill, has to be passed before Christmas. See the story below and a recent story in Myeloma Today for more background.

Action Alert:

All myeloma advocates around the nation should call and fax messages to their senators and representatives in the next two weeks to request that they:

  • Support passage of a Labor, HHS appropriations bill that follows the Senate recommendation to increase funds for NIH (National Institutes of Health) by $1 billion.
  • Oppose any decrease of funds for the cancer programs at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
  • Oppose any across-the-board spending cuts impacting medical research funding. Make cancer research a high national priority.

Please go to www.senate.gov or www.house.gov if you are unsure about the identity of your representative or senators. Each site has a feature into which you can type your zip code and address to find out. These sites also provide links to the individual home pages of the members with contact addresses and numbers.

You can also call the Capital switchboard at 202-224-3121 and ask to be connected to your representative’s and senators’ offices.

It is best to call and send faxes. Mail is still being delayed because of the anthrax incidents and email responses are spotty at best.

If you have any questions, please contact Greg Brozeit by email or by phone at 330-865-0046.

An Opportunity for Medical Research?

Congress recessed last week for Thanksgiving after the House rejected the annual spending package that included cuts for cancer programs at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The defeat of the bill was a rare setback for House congressional leadership.

On November 17, 2005 the House rejected a conference report by a 222-209 vote on the Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations bill, sending the bill back to conference. Twenty two House Republicans voted to defeat the bill. A conference is a special committee made up of House representatives and Senators convened to iron out differences between bills passed by each chamber. The Senate never took up a vote after the House action.

In separate action following the House vote, 58 senators voted in favor of Sen. Richard Durbin’s (D-IL) motion that Senate conferees “be instructed to insist on retaining the Senate passed provisions relating to funding for the National Institutes of Health.” It is the equivalent of a political line in the sand and remains to be seen if passage of the bill will hinge on this issue.

Setback Avoided…For Now?

Had the House and Senate passed this legislation, it would have approved unprecedented cuts to medical research funding. Perhaps this vote represents the beginning of a resurgence to make NIH, its largest institute—the National Cancer Institute—and disease research a high national priority again.

That conference report rejected the Senate bill’s more generous NIH increase in favor of a House provision that would have cut annual medical research funding for the first time in our nation’s history. It also cut the CDC budget by $249 million, or 3.9%.

Under the terms of the Senate bill, NIH would receive an increase of $1 billion—for a total of $29.4 billion—which represented an increase of 3.7%. Most experts in the field agree that the annual medical inflation rate is about 3.5% annually; therefore, the Senate amount would have preserved most of the existing programs.

The House bill closely follows the administration’s budget proposal and would increase NIH by $206 million or 0.7% and then impose a 1.0% across-the-board cut to all programs in the bill. In essence, it would have represented a substantial cut in funding. According to numbers publicized by NIH after the President’s budget was released in February 2005, at least 505 fewer research grants would have been funded under the proposal.

Next Procedural Steps

Now that the bill has been rejected and sent back to conference, a number of options remain. First, the conference committee must meet to iron out differences and it remains to be seen if the Senate motion to instruct will carry weight. Should they agree on a final package, they can:

  • introduce the newly crafted conference report and pass it with the highest possible medical research spending,
  • pass the conference report and attach an across-the-board spending provision,
  • attach it to another spending bill, such a defense, or, in the worst case,
  • they could pass a continuing resolution to fund all the programs at this year’s levels, which would represent an overall cut of 1.6% for all programs.

Across-the-board cuts are particularly draconian and, from a legislative point of view, almost cowardly. Approval would mean that Congress and the administration could not face up to their obligations to make choices and define national priorities. Across-the-board cuts would make every funding decision equal, meaning, for example, that a medical research program would be the funding equal of any other program.

Congressional 2015 Letters to the President

The vote on this issue will test the strength and commitment of 275 members of the House and 92 Senators who signed letters to the White House (read House Letter) (read Senate Letter) earlier this year to express their support for the administration’s 2015 initiative—which sets the goal of eliminating suffering and death due to cancer by the year 2015.

Without question, the 2015 goal cannot be achieved on the miserly NIH, NCI, and CDC cancer program budgets approved over the past two years. Progress may actually be hindered if the current, most draconian cuts proposed in the House bill pass.

This is not to say that the proposed Senate funding increases will reverse the trend. But holding firm now may provide the political backbone for Congress to reverse the current funding problems and realize the opportunity of the 2015 goal.

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