HHS spending bill prompts physician protest

Physician organizations and other experts bellied-down in the front lines of the healthcare trenches are taking aim at a House spending bill proposing significant cuts to medical research, physician education programs and federal agencies concerned with patient safety.

A document that Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D, Conn.), the House Appropriations Labor/HHS subcommittee’s top Democrat, describes as “reckless,” the legislation means to arrogate $150 billion in discretionary funds for the Department of Health & Human Services and other programs — a reduction of $6.3 billion from the 2012 fiscal volume and $8.8 billion less than what President Obama requested of the budget.  

The motion, which was promoted and created by the Republican party, was approved by a party-line vote in the subcommittee on July 18, although the committee in its entirety did not appropriate a date to consider the bill. House GOP members claimed the passage of the legislation was about decreasing spending on so dubbed unnecessary or inefficient programs; they said the promotion of fiscal responsibility was paramount to the bill’s prerogative.

The health system reform law “is driving up health costs and making it harder for small businesses to hire workers,” said Rep. Denny Rehberg (R, Mont.), the subcommittee’s chair, to amednews. Rehberg and the GOP also insisted that halting funding for these programs would keep $123 billion in taxpayer wallets over the next five years.

But whereas the regulation offers savings for taxpayer pockets, it slashes several resources physicians hold dear in the process. Medical schools and teaching hospitals would be confronted with limitations regarding their ability to conduct research and maintain the health care workforce. Darrell Kirch, MD, president and CEO of the Assocaition of American Medical Colleges, noted the bill’s “rigid requirements” regarding National Institute of Health (NIH) research grants.

“This coupled with a freeze of that agency’s budget, would undermine NIH’s ability to support the most promising, scientifically driven research proposals at medical schools and teaching hospitals nationwide,” Kirch said.  

Physician organizations were also concerned with the proposal to eliminate the Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality (ARQH). Roland Goertz, MD, board chair of the American Academy of Family Physicians, sent a letter to the subcommittee on July 18 pressing for reconsideration of the ARQH eradication, finding instead that the committee should grant the agency $400 million in fiscal 2013 rather than slash it.

The Prevention and Public Health Fund would also face extinction if the bill were to stand. Given that the fund “has already helped modernize vaccine systems, support breastfeeding, reduce tobacco use and address the childhood obesity epidemic, among other initiatives” (according to Robert Block, MD, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics), the cut could not only be fatally deep for the program, but lethal for physicians and patients as well.  

The only positive aspect of the legislation emerges with the $275 million which will support the Children’s Hospital Graduate Medical Education program, a $10 million increase from the year before, Block said in closing.

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