June 10 (Bloomberg) — Many Republicans, and Democrats, never thought the automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration would take effect. After all, they might produce dangerous, if unintended, consequences such as potentially bankrupting the U.S. health-care system, along with millions of families.
Typical Washington hyperbole, right? It actually is happening under sequestration, which kicked in three months ago, a product of America’s political dysfunction.
Because the cuts only affect the margins of a wide array of defense and domestic discretionary programs, there mostly hasn’t been an immediate pinch; the public backlash has been minimal. The long-term consequences, in more than a few cases, are ominous.
There’s no better case study than Alzheimer’s disease. With the sequestration-enforced cuts at the National Institutes of Health, research to find a cure or better treatment is slowing.
Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. Five million Americans are afflicted with the disease. It costs about $200 billion a year, creating a severe strain for public health care and many families. Then there’s the emotional toll: The Alzheimer’s Association estimates that caregivers had an additional $9 billion of health-care costs last year.
“As the population lives longer, Alzheimer’s is the defining disease of this generation,” says Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, who’s trying to fight the sequestration restraints and sharply increase spending for research.
The latest annual report on health statistics from the Centers for Disease Control underscores her point. There’s been a lot of progress, in large part because of earlier NIH efforts: The number of deaths from strokes and heart disease is down more than 30 percent over the past decade, and cancer deaths have declined almost 15 percent. The reverse has occurred with Alzheimer’s. Over a decade, deaths have risen sharply, up 38 percent for males and 41 percent for women.
It’s expected to get worse. A report this spring by the nonpartisan Rand Corp. estimates that by 2040, the number of Americans afflicted will have doubled, as will the costs. Other experts say that as grave as those projections are, they may be underestimated. The Alzheimer’s Association says that under current trends the cost will exceed $1 trillion annually by 2050. That either would bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid or force huge tax increases.
Much critical health research in the U.S. generally emanates from the NIH, which has compiled a record of success with many diseases that has been the envy of the world.
The NIH’s funding is cut by 5 percent, or $1.55 billion this year, across the board. That means 700 fewer research grants are approved and 750 fewer patients will be admitted to its clinical center. The longer the automatic cuts go on, the worse it will get; medical breakthroughs rarely are instantaneous. They take years and build on previous studies and experiments.
Alzheimer’s research, pre-sequestration, was slated for a healthy increase this year. By moving a few discretionary funds, the NIH has avoided cutbacks.
Still, the funding falls dramatically short of the promise.