Don’t forget about medical research for America’s heroes

With the bipartisan budget agreement for FY’s 2014 and 2015 now in place, the next task for Congress will be to approve appropriations bills for the balance of FY 2014, and thereafter to begin deliberations on the FY 2015 appropriations bills.  Although the budget agreement does not directly cut funding to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in the area of VA medical research, the status quo is simply not good enough for the men and women who served.

In recent years, annual funding for VA’s Medical and Prosthetic Research program has effectively been flat-lined.  The 2010 VA research budget was $581 million, and the 2013 level was nearly the same, at $582 million.  When taking inflation into account, the VA research program has actually declined in constant dollars.  Without additional funds VA will not be able to aggressively pursue urgently needed research to help veterans suffering from grievous injuries and diseases, many that are endemic to war. 

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While most people are not surprised to learn that VA’s medical and clinical research programs are among the world’s leaders in areas such as PTSD, TBI, prosthetics, spinal cord injury, blindness and hearing loss, they might be surprised to learn how much VA’s research programs benefit the general population.

It was VA scientists who developed the original nicotine patch, aiding countless smokers to quit the habit, including many who began while in the military.  VA research proved that an aspirin a day will keep your heart attack away. VA research showed that “watchful monitoring” for early prostate cancer is as effective as surgery.  VA showed that patients with osteoarthritis of the knee who underwent mock arthroscopic surgeries were as likely to report pain relief as those who got the real thing (on which over $3 billion is annually spent in the U.S.). 

VA researchers have been awarded the Nobel Prize for discoveries in chemistry, immunoassay and imaging technology.  VA proved the original effectiveness of treatments for tuberculosis after World War II.  Today, among thousands of ongoing projects, VA is building a “Million Veteran Program,” a unique genetic research reference library—the largest repository of its kind in the world—that will power individualized, “personal” medicine in the future in ways we cannot imagine today.

At a time of war, one would think VA research into treatments and care for wounded, injured and ill veterans who served in dangerous and deadly combat would be one of the nation’s highest priorities.  It isn’t.  For the past decade, with a budget only a tiny fraction of the National Institute of Health’s billions, administrations and Congresses of both parties have provided barely enough money for this clinical research program to do its valuable work on behalf of the nation’s military heroes.  This program struggles to cobble together the funds to support meritorious research projects that would benefit sick and injured veterans of yesterday, today and tomorrow.  VA’s “success rate” of awarding grants to VA research scientists comes in at only 15 percent, delaying or abandoning thousands of potentially life-changing medical research proposals.  Given the paucity of VA research dollars, how many new life-saving or health-changing research proposals will never be awarded?

Although Congress has dramatically increased the wartime VA health care budget to meet the needs of almost 6 million veteran users, at the same time appropriators have essentially flat-funded research that underlies cutting edge medicine.  We are grateful for the VA health care increases that have provided expanded services to an increasing number of wounded, injured, and ill veterans, however there must be commensurate increases for VA research.

In an age when basic scientific and medical research holds more promise than at any time in history, it is hard to explain the lack of serious funding for VA research.  How will political leaders explain to future generations of wounded, injured and ill veterans, and all veterans, why they are unable to lead fulfilling lives?  How will they defend decisions that will cause these heroes to live lower quality lives after they served and sacrificed just because a few extra dollars could not be found to maintain the viability of this kind of precious research?

Augustine, a combat-wounded Vietnam veteran, is executive director of Disabled American Veterans' National Service and Legislative Headquarters in Washington, D.C.