GOP pushes for more money for National Institutes of Health

President Barack Obama listens to Dr. Nancy Sullivan during a tour of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in Bethesda, Md.
President Barack Obama listens to Dr. Nancy Sullivan during a tour of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014, in Bethesda, Md. AP

The National Institutes of Health could see its biggest budget increase in more than a decade as part of a $1.1 trillion spending bill Congress will vote on Friday.

Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Rep. Kevin Yoder of Kansas and other conservatives in Congress spearheaded the push to boost NIH’s funding by $2 billion – a billion more than requested by the Obama administration.

A letter to GOP leadership signed by more than 100 Republicans in the House of Representatives last month had advocated for an even higher increase of $3 billion.

As it is, the $2 billion bump that made it into the massive omnibus appropriations bill this week would be the largest funding hike for the NIH since 2003, bringing the institutes’ total annual budget to $32 billion. And it would mark the triumph of an unusual Republican-led campaign to increase federal spending for a civilian agency, rather than cut it.

“Health care research is something that, frankly, just isn’t going to happen in the way it should happen unless the government steps forward and says we’re going to be a leader here,” Blunt said in a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday.

He noted that NIH funding has remained relatively flat in recent years. Adjusted for inflation, today’s $30.1 billion NIH budget is about 20 percent less than it was in 2003, he said.

Blunt, who serves as chairman of an appropriations subcommittee that sets funding levels for NIH and other agencies, told Missouri reporters Wednesday that he hopes that this year’s nearly 7 percent budget increase for medical research will be a start in the right direction.

“I absolutely would hope that what we were able to accomplish this year was not a one-hit wonder, but the first as a series of efforts to increase NIH funding,” Blunt said.

More money for NIH likely means additional grant money available for research institutions and hospitals in lawmakers’ home states. This includes the University of Kansas Medical Center in Yoder’s district in suburban Kansas City, Mo., and Washington University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in St. Louis, which Blunt visited in April to highlight to need for federally funded medical research.

Some tea party activists and the conservative group Heritage Action have been critical of Republicans such as Blunt and Yoder, who’ve advocated for more NIH spending.

Yoder has even floated the idea of doubling the agency’s budget to $60 billion over 10 years. He says he’s making his argument from the perspective of a fiscal hawk.

“Investing in NIH, it’s certainly going to bring money into our communities to hire researchers,” Yoder said. “There’s going to be an economic bump.”

But even more than that, he said he thought it was fiscally irresponsible not to provide sufficient government funding for research into cures for common but devastating diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and heart ailments.

The U.S. is projected to spend more than a trillion annually by 2050 to treat Alzheimer’s alone, for example, yet the government is spending only about $500 million annually to try to find a cure, Yoder said.

“And to me that’s penny-wise and pound-foolish, and if we’re trying to balance the budget and cut health care costs in this country, there’s no better way of doing that than curing these diseases,” he said.

Yoder stressed that the omnibus appropriations bill cuts funding for other agencies to reprioritize that money at NIH.

Among the examples he gave were provisions that limit the Environmental Protection Agency to $8.1 billion, freeze IRS funding at $1.7 billion below the president’s request and cut the Independent Payment Advisory Board by $15 million. The board was created by the Affordable Care Act – also known as Obamacare – to recommend ways to reduce the growth of Medicare spending but it’s long been opposed by physicians and hospitals.

“In a very divisive political environment in Washington, D.C., we have Congress coming together to do the right thing for NIH research,” Yoder said, “and that’s a moment where you have to be proud, because you don’t always have proud moments in the current political environment.”

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise