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Diabetes research at risk due to funding lapse, groups warn

Diabetes research at risk due to funding lapse, groups warn
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Several groups are pleading with Congress to permanently fund diabetes programs, arguing the absence of long-term funding could delay promising new research and harm prevention efforts in vulnerable populations.   

So far, lawmakers have provided a funding patch for the two diabetes programs that will last through March 31. But these short-term fixes come at a cost because they “do not provide the sustained ability for these programs to keep moving forward,” said Meghan Riley of the American Diabetes Association.

“We’re relentlessly working to get Congress to come up with a viable strategy to move it forward and finalize it,” added Riley, who is the association’s vice president of federal government affairs.

At issue are two diabetes programs that have received scant attention as lawmakers work to reauthorize other key health-care programs they let expire last year.

Established in 1997, the Special Diabetes Program has funded research into Type 1 diabetes, a chronic condition where the pancreas stops producing insulin. The condition is typically diagnosed in children. In 2015, Congress reauthorized the program to the tune of $150 million annually over two years so that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) could continue funneling money into research aimed at preventing and curing the disease and its complications. 

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The program’s funding lapsed Sept. 30, and before lawmakers left town for the winter holidays, they approved $37.5 million to continue it through March 31.

But the short-term funding has an impact.

According to NIH, the partial renewal “could affect [the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases] ability to fund grants, compromise quality and potential achievement of scientific research supported by the funds, and potentially limit [its] ability to fund new research in FY18.”

The dollars are important in helping support groundbreaking diabetes research, and the program has a track record of helping bring new technologies to the market — such as the artificial pancreas approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2016, according to JDRF, an organization funding Type 1 diabetes research.

“The program needs to be fully funded in order to move new research forward,” said Cynthia Rice, JDRF’s senior vice president of advocacy and policy.

“Essentially, right now, the National Institutes of Health can fund $37.5 million in research, but they have a portfolio of potential research, which is so promising, to deliver new therapies and new technologies to people with Type 1 diabetes that they can’t fund.”

The lapse in permanent funding is also affecting the Special Diabetes Program for Indians, established in 1997 in response to the high rate of diabetes among American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The dollars — which totaled $300 million over the past two years — went toward treatment and prevention services for this population. They were extended for three months in late September, and then also received a $37.5 million short-term patch through March 31. 

But the delay leaves a cloud of uncertainty over the program. 

“It's a threat to the workforce, it's a threat to employment and it's a threat to the stability of this program to continue doing the excellent work that it does,” said Stacy Bohlen, the National Indian Health Board’s executive director.

Some tribes’ programs have begun sending furlough notices to staff, with possible layoffs looming, if the funding doesn’t come through, added Caitrin McCarron Shuy, the board’s director of congressional relations.

The groups are urging Congress to reauthorize the programs in the next funding bill, as Congress veers toward another quick deadline — Feb.  8 — to keep the government’s lights on.

The special diabetes programs are a bipartisan affair, with advocates noting that the overwhelming majority of Congress signed onto a 2016 letter supporting them. Yet, they’re not the only bipartisan health program that saw its funding lapse on Sept. 30. 

Lawmakers on Monday approved a six-year extension of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) in the bill that ended the three-day government shutdown. Yet community health centers and other health extenders weren’t included in the bill, to the frustration of advocates.

These programs could be on the congressional to-do list for the next spending measure, though it’s far from certain they’ll be included, given the intense partisan fighting over funding legislation this year.

A Republican aide to the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote in an email that the panel’s chairman, Rep. Greg WaldenGregory (Greg) Paul WaldenVulnerable Republicans throw ‘Hail Mary’ on pre-existing conditions GOP senator wants Apple, Amazon to give briefing on reported Super Micro hack Overnight Health Care: Bill banning 'gag clauses' on drugs heads to Trump's desk | Romney opposes Utah Medicaid expansion | GOP candidate under fire over ad on pre-existing conditions MORE (R-Ore.), “believes the Special Diabetes Program, along with several other important public health programs, should receive long term funding extension as part of the next must-pass piece of legislation when Congress returns.” 

But a Democratic committee spokesman urged a clean extension of the program, writing in an email that there isn’t a need to fold the special diabetes program into a “potentially controversial [continuing resolution].”

Over Democrats’ objections, the House passed a bill in early November to extend a variety of health programs, including CHIP and the ones for diabetes. Democrats opposed the way Republicans planned to pay for the bill, such as using money from ObamaCare’s public health and prevention fund. 

Some lawmakers, such as Congressional Diabetes Caucus co-chairs, Reps. Tom ReedThomas (Tom) W. ReedDemocrats see hypocrisy in GOP attacks on ‘liberal mob’ GOP on timing of Haley’s announcement: 'Unusual' and 'odd' Moderate Blue Dogs endorse House rules overhaul to break gridlock MORE (R-N.Y.) and Diana DeGetteDiana Louise DeGetteLive coverage: Social media execs face grilling on Capitol Hill Women poised to take charge in Dem majority Bipartisan leaders of House panel press drug companies on opioid crisis MORE (D-Colo.), are actively working to ensure the diabetes programs keep going.

“I talk to my leadership on an at least weekly basis about how important this program is and about how we need to do it,” DeGette said in a phone interview.

— This report was updated at 10:11 a.m.