Congress must support the NIH

In 1954, my father, a pediatrician, was one of the physicians who participated in the medical trial study of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine, a medical experiment involving 1.8 million children across the country. My brother, two years my senior, was given the vaccine according to the study’s protocol. I was not given the vaccine and five months later I contracted polio. In April of 1955, the positive results of the study were announced and the vaccine was quickly released. My case fell into the gap between the testing and the release of the vaccine and I suffer the effects of polio to this day. I was fortunate, I know, as many children did not survive polio, but I often think that had the medical research been concluded earlier, my health and my life would have been different.

That is why I am fighting to protect federal funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and why I authored an amendment during the debate on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to raise the proposed $3.5 billion NIH allocation to $10 billion. The NIH is our country’s foremost medical research center and has helped millions across the country suffering from heart disease, cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. Despite the many accomplishments of the NIH doctors, scientists and researchers over the years, sequestration slashes funding for the NIH by more than $1.6 billion.

Supporting the NIH is a topic on which both political parties should be able to find common ground. However, some Republicans fail to recognize what a priority the NIH is and should remain. While foreign and terrorist threats have resulted in the enormous Department of Defense (DOD) budget, even leaders at the Pentagon concede the DOD budget can withstand cuts without jeopardizing our security. Some funding currently allocated to the Pentagon could be easily re-appropriated to the NIH to fight our biggest enemy: disease. And the NIH serves as our defense against disease. Disease is in our homeland, upending the lives of millions of Americans every day. As a nation, we spend billions of dollars rebuilding infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan, and repairing bridges and roads in the United States. Yet Republicans in Congress are refusing to invest in the infrastructure of the human body, which is the mission of the NIH.

Republicans have not yet put forth their appropriations bills for next year, but if the Ryan budget is any indication of their plans, the NIH will take further deep cuts. Unless we plan to starve every other spending program, there’s no way to make the GOP budget add up unless it slashes funding to the NIH. This would be a huge mistake.

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The NIH funding cuts will affect family budgets across America. Poor health costs the U.S. economy nearly $600 billion per year, according to the Integrated Benefits Institute. Those who focus solely on the fiscal future of our nation are ignoring the fact that the fiscal health of our country is directly related to the physical health of our citizens. This is not some abstract notion. We’ve seen families financially ruined by medical bills. People who are seriously ill cannot work and often require a caregiver, which means the wage-earning ability of at least two family members can be affected.

Many Republicans argue that if we don’t get our financial house in order through draconian spending cuts that we run the risk of becoming like Cyprus, Greece and Ireland, countries that have all suffered economic hardships in recent years and have relied on foreign assistance for help. However, if we fail to support the NIH, we will have to rely on foreign countries in the future for advancements in medical research, treatment and technology to treat our fellow citizens.

Health is wealth. We’ve heard the adage all our lives. Health is the bedrock upon which we build our families, our careers and our happiness. The United States has long been a leader in medical research, funding research which has saved and improved the quality of lives of our citizens. Unfortunately, medical research has fallen victim to sequestration and the impact of the cuts to the NIH will be felt now and far into the future.

Every American who has received a vaccine, an antibiotic or undergone any medical procedure has been the beneficiary of medical research. Researchers at the NIH fight an ongoing battle against disease, working tirelessly to advance medical care and medical cures. I know personally that time is of the essence and that time lost has a real and lasting effect on people’s lives.


Cohen represents Tennessee's 9th District.

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