2008 NIH budget nearly flat -- again

But the fiscal '08 budget signed into law last month gives a funding boost to community health centers.

By — Posted Jan. 21, 2008

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For the fifth consecutive year, the National Institutes of Health budget will fail to keep pace with growth in the cost of conducting biomedical research, research groups said.

On Dec. 26, 2007, President Bush signed a $555 billion fiscal 2008 domestic spending package, one week after the House and eight days after the Senate adopted the measure. While the nearly flat NIH budget left research advocates warning that the U.S. edge on biomedical research is eroding, community health centers were thankful for an increase.

The budget measure provides a $133 million, 0.5% increase for the NIH. The figure is adjusted for an earlier bipartisan agreement to transfer $295 million of the institutes' budget to the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Biomedical research inflation, however, is expected to remain steady at 3.7% this year, according to the Dept. of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis.

The act includes $65.6 billion in discretionary Dept. of Health and Human Services spending -- about $2.9 billion less than the version Bush vetoed on Nov. 13. Although the president said the appropriations package was more responsible than the earlier spending bills, he said he would have vetoed the measure without its $70 billion in funding for the war on terror.

Bush also chided Congress for including 9,800 special projects, or earmarks, in the legislation at a cost of nearly $10 billion. "These projects are not funded through a merit-based process and provide a vehicle for wasteful government spending," the president said.

Rep. David Obey (D, Wis.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said the act is a true compromise. "The omnibus appropriations bill is totally inadequate to meet the long-term investment needs of the country, but it is a whole lot better than the country would have without a Democratic Congress."

The nearly status-quo federal funding for medical science also is the result of lawmakers' inability to override the president's veto. The rejected HHS bill would have increased the fiscal 2008 NIH budget by $1.1 billion, to $30 billion.

There aren't many positives for scientific research in the 2008 budget, said David Moore, senior associate vice president for government relations for the Assn. of American Medical Colleges.

"What we're going to see is less research, a slowing down of certain research programs," he said. "It's a slowing of medical progress."

Bush's veto of the more robust HHS spending bill and his proposed $280 million, 1% cut in the 2008 NIH budget left Robert Palazzo, PhD, president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, wondering if Bush values scientific research.

"Instead of fighting a war on disease, it looks like we've started a war against science," Dr. Palazzo said. The FASEB campaigned for 6.7% NIH increases between 2008 and 2010 to make up for previous budgets that failed to keep up with inflation.

Moore said it's going to be difficult to make up ground lost by stagnant NIH budgets after 2003, following the doubling of the NIH budget between 1999 and 2003. He isn't optimistic a new president would be able to boost nonmilitary health spending because of the ongoing obligations for the war on terror and because thousands of veterans are returning home from the war in Iraq in need of health care.

"With a Democratic White House, a Democratic Congress, we may see a shifting of priorities, but the overall budget situation is not going to be easily turned around," he said.

Health centers get help

Federally qualified community health centers will receive a 3.9%, $77 million increase to just more than $2 billion in federal funding this fiscal year. That level will allow them to provide medical and dental care to an additional 280,000 people, according to the House Appropriations Committee.

Earlier bills would have provided up to $250 million more than the 2007 budget of $1.99 billion, but there were no major complaints from Dan Hawkins, senior vice president for policy and programs at the National Assn. of Community Health Centers. Bush had requested no increase above community health centers' 2007 budget.

"Despite misplaced priorities at the White House, our champions in the Congress have once again ensured that health centers nationwide will continue to provide affordable, accessible, high-quality health care to those who need it most," Hawkins said.

The new funding will expand access to care via a combination of new and expanded health centers and through reduced wait times in crowded centers, said Craig Kennedy, associate vice president for federal and state affairs for the National Assn. of Community Health Centers.

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How health programs fared

President Bush signed a $555 billion fiscal year 2008 spending measure on Dec. 26, 2007, that funds the federal government through Sept. 30. The law includes smaller health program spending increases than many lawmakers would have liked to see because Congress was unable to overcome presidential objections.

Here are some major health allotments:

FY 2007 spendingFY 2008 spending
National Institutes of Health$28.9 billion$29.2 billion
National Science Foundation$ 5.9 billion$6.0 billion
Community health centers$2.0 billion$2.1 billion
Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality$319.0 million$334.6 million
National Health Service Corps$125.7 million$123.5 million
Title VII health professions training programs$184.7 million$193.9 million

Note: NIH figures include NIH funding of $99 million in 2007 and $295 million in 2008 dedicated to the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Sources: Bill text and bill conference report

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