Sequestration puts well-being of families at risk

We are on the edge of a dangerous precipice. If no action is taken by Congress, deep automatic cuts to discretionary spending, known as the sequester, will go into effect on March 1. If that happens, every single common-sense priority of the American people and responsibility of good government will be indiscriminately slashed, including healthcare services, food safety and medical research. Jobs will be lost and our economic recovery will be threatened. And the health, well-being and even lives of American families will be needlessly put at risk. 

As mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act, which passed after House Republicans took the economy hostage by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, sequestration would mean an immediate deep cut to defense and non-defense discretionary spending. This sequester was supposed to push the members of the bipartisan deficit “supercommittee” to come to an agreement, but no agreement was reached. If allowed to proceed, these cuts will wreak havoc, and their impact will be felt by millions all over the country.

If we do not act by March 1, as many as 373,000 mentally ill adults and children would lose access to mental-health services; 210,000 fewer children will be vaccinated; close to 50,000 fewer women will receive cancer screenings; and one million fewer patients could be served at Community health centers. Hundreds of National Institutes of Health grants will be lost, costing thousands of jobs. Almost 1,000 National Science Foundation grants will disappear, meaning 12,000 researchers, students and staff lose their funding.

And this is just the start of it. Food safety, nutrition for mothers and infants, education, job training, law enforcement, college aid, infrastructure, air traffic control — all of these fundamental priorities will be negatively affected by such indiscriminate, across-the-board cuts. And these come on top of the $1.5 trillion in cuts already agreed to as a result of the caps from the Budget Control Act. 

The ostensible purpose of the sequester is to reduce the deficit. But discretionary spending is not a key driver of the deficit. Despite all the important priorities that fall into this category, $1.5 trillion in cuts made in 2012 and continuing through 2021 will bring non-defense discretionary spending to its lowest level since President Eisenhower.

In the appropriations bill from the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education subcommittee, overall growth has been rather modest over the past 10 years — insufficient to keep up with inflation and population growth. The subpanel’s 2002 bill spent just over $525 per person, but by last year, it had dropped to under $500 per person. Clearly, this spending is not the cause of the deficit. 

Even worse, these deep cuts will do nothing to fix the deficit. Instead, they will cause tremendous damage to economic growth. Community health centers, for example, save America an average of $1,263 per patient per year in health costs. They are also engines of job creation, especially in rural and low-income communities. In 2009, these centers hired 10,000 new staff directly, provided employment opportunities for more than 123,000 others and injected more than $11 billion directly into local economies. Cutting funding for these centers will increase healthcare spending, slow down growth, cost Americans jobs and increase the deficit.

To take another example, every research grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health results in seven new jobs. And every single dollar of NIH funding is estimated to result in an additional two dollars of business activity and economic impact. Even notwithstanding the tremendous medical benefits of this research, that is a 100 percent return on investment. We are doubling our money every time a grant goes through.

As these facts attest, there is a better way forward than simply allowing deep and indiscriminate cuts to damage our national health. The best possible way to get our fiscal situation in order is to make the budget a vehicle for growth and job creation. 

As Annie Lowrey recently noted in The New York Times, if the economy were to grow 1 percentage point more than expected in each year over the next 10 years, the deficit would shrink by more than $3 trillion. 

In sum, making smart investments in public health will help defeat the deficit. Allowing dangerous across-the-board cuts to go into effect will only increase it. 

DeLauro is the ranking Democrat on the House Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations subcommittee.