Investing in small clinical laboratories can help cure chronic disease, cut overall costs

This time last year, healthcare reform was one of the most widely discussed and hotly debated policy topics out there. Today, in the face of a growing recession, it has taken a backseat to the economy.

But while it may no longer be the most visible national priority, our country’s healthcare crisis is far from over. With 45 million Americans still uninsured, it is a problem that promises to be with us well into the foreseeable future.

But that doesn’t mean solutions aren’t within reach. A series of targeted investments can address one of the most serious challenges to our healthcare system — skyrocketing medical expenditures. Seventy-five percent of the $2.2 trillion that the U.S. now spends on healthcare goes to treating chronic illnesses. Imagine how much we would save if we could find a cure for — or better yet, prevent — these conditions. From a purely economic standpoint, these solutions would be a tremendous cost-cutter. From a human standpoint, they would be a long-awaited miracle, one that small businesses are already bringing closer to reality.

A new wave of medical technologies is promising to revolutionize American healthcare and, in doing so, rein in costs. Within the laboratory community and other sectors of the industry, key private-public partnerships have successfully fostered innovation. The Small Business Administration’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBTT) programs, in particular, have been critical in allowing small laboratories to spearhead medical breakthroughs.

Across the country, small clinical laboratories are transforming genetic testing. That particular field lets physicians take proactive steps in preventing chronic illnesses. Today, such tests are helping address diseases ranging from leukemia and heart conditions to HIV and breast cancer.

A genetic test developed by a small firm in the Northeast, for example, provides a definitive diagnosis of cancer months ahead of other techniques. As a result, treatment can begin much sooner, thus reducing the need for additional tests and procedures. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, a California startup has developed a genetic test for heart transplant patients. The procedure uses information contained in white blood cells to determine whether bodies are rejecting or accepting transplants, reducing the number of costly tissue biopsies.

By furthering the quest to end chronic illnesses like cancer and heart disease, small clinical laboratories have the potential to save Americans millions in healthcare costs. But developing new procedures and medical devices is expensive. Without SBA programs like SBIR and SBTT, it would be all but impossible. Both of these initiatives are intended to support research and development by small enterprises, with particular emphasis on areas that serve the national interest.

But unfortunately, the last eight years of the Bush administration have left SBA in disarray. Budget cuts have starved SBIR and SBTT, leaving healthcare startups largely in the lurch. Unless there is a renewed investment in these programs, countless small labs — and their vast potential for innovation — will disappear.

As Congress and the new administration look for ways to address the problems in our healthcare system, I cannot stress enough the importance of investing in the SBIR and SBTT programs. It is not often that policies present an opportunity to do something both economical and ethical. Supporting small firms that not only cure chronic illnesses but also cut healthcare costs presents just such an opportunity.

Velázquez is chairwoman of the House Small Business Committee.