Arthritis is the nation's leading cause of disability, costing the U.S. $128 billion each year.  Worldwide, 350 million people suffer from disease, and the number of Americans with arthritis and related maladies is projected to be 67 million by 2030.

While these facts and figures illustrate the scale of this escalating health condition, they do not fully capture the devastating effects of arthritis on the lives of countless individuals. Unrelenting pain and stiffness are symptoms that plague people suffering from this disease. The toll it takes on Americans is enormous.  

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Although there is great promise for medical research to discover new treatments that could improve the lives of millions of patients, ineffective policymaking in Washington, D.C. creates a roadblock for progress. 

Our nation’s lawmakers can, however, make a difference.  The first step is increased investment in medical research.  One American organization – the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – is at the absolute forefront of medical advancement. 

NIH funding currently supports investigators who identified lung inflammation as one of the earliest causes of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a discovery that brings us one step closer to preventing a disease that leads to co-morbidities and increased mortality.  The federal agency also supports genetic mapping of RA and lupus patients, which aids in the identification of genes that will help explain and treat these diseases. Moreover, NIH-funded research has now unlocked new ways to suppress the immune system, which can result in less toxic methods to treat autoimmune diseases affecting tens of thousands of people in the U.S.  

Federal funding from the NIH has made a difference, delivering hope to millions of patients and families struggling with rheumatic diseases.  We are on the cusp of major innovation.  The best way to treat arthritis – and other rheumatic diseases – is to stop it in its tracks and find a cure.  And we’re almost there. 

Unfortunately, the momentous progress we have experienced is now at risk.  And something must be done.

The NIH is the lifeblood of our country’s medical research.  Yet little national attention is paid to the chronic and hazardous budget cuts NIH has experienced in recent years.  In fact, the NIH receives nearly 25 percent less in funding than it did a decade ago, when adjusted for inflation. 

Each year, NIH invests more than $30 billion in medical research for the American people.  Eighty percent of its budget is dedicated to competitive research grants for universities, medical schools, and other research institutions in each state – and even around the world.  An additional 10 percent of its budget supports projects conducted by NIH’s own world-renowned researchers.   

The immediate impact of this funding gap is the loss of hundreds of promising proposals for research not only for rheumatic diseases, but also for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and the Ebola virus.   With the loss of federal funding dollars, we are also putting at risk thousands of lives that medical research could improve, prolong, and even save.   

NIH investment also stimulates economic growth.  Indeed, the agency currently supports more than 400,000 American jobs. Every dollar of NIH funding produces nearly two times as much new economic activity – tangibly impacting local communities across America. 

We now stand to lose both the health and economic benefits of the NIH if funding continues to decline. 

This leads us to a critical question: will lawmakers take action now to reverse the troubling lack of investment in NIH?  At the American College of Rheumatology, we believe Congress must act now and meet this funding challenge head on.   

Legislators must take immediate action to provide increased funding and sustained budget growth for the National Institutes of Health. 

Our country – and patients everywhere – cannot afford to wait.

Boackle is a member of the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) Committee on Research, liaison to the ACR’s Government Affairs Committee, and Smyth professor of Rheumatology and associate professor of Medicine and Immunology/Microbiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.