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Sequestration cuts will devastate cancer research

The human cost of sequestration is showing up in many ways. Congress must act to reverse the severe consequences. Today, the conversation is about cancer research and oncology practices that stand to be directly hard hit.

And as News medical reporter Henry L. Davis outlined, the fiscal impact is jolting. The National Institutes of Health allocates grants for cancer research and it faces a $1.6 billion cut this year. The cascade of consequences bodes ill for research institutions dedicated to eradicating the disease. The reductions include more than $250 million in cancer research funding in fiscal year 2013, according to the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Last year, Roswell Park Cancer Institute received more than $60 million in direct and indirect funding from the NIH or National Cancer Institute. Dr. Candace Johnson, deputy director of Roswell Park, spoke about the consequences, especially at a time when cancer research is at its peak. As Research!America, a nonprofit public education and advocacy alliance, recently reported, the effects of sequestration have a price in research funding dollars at a critical time of health, scientific, medical and biological research. The cuts are aimed directly at discovering treatments and moving safe and effective new medicines to market.

This hits on a local level. Oncology practices will suffer and possibly close or merge into larger groups, both difficult situations when the current political rhetoric is about lowering health care costs. If patients are forced to go to hospitals for treatment, the cost to Medicare will sharply increase.

The situation has dimmed in the few short days since April 1, when sequestration cuts to Medicare payments for cancer drugs and services took effect. Cancer-related organizations have reportedly warned that this action will force many community oncology practices to discontinue seeing new Medicare patients.

The enormous costs to treat cancer patients will adversely affect an underfunded, hobbled system and make things much worse for patients struggling to keep body and soul together, let alone worry about health care costs.

Local voices are being raised as Roswell Park is in the middle of preparing for the renewal of its five-year core grant from the National Cancer Institute. And the grant is based on the institute’s budget at the time of renewal.

So, more than 50 Roswell Park researchers are expected to attend the annual meeting next week of the American Association for Cancer Research. The convention will attract more than 17,000 to Washington, D.C. And the association and 100 other organizations will conduct a rally that is planned to coincide with the meeting Monday morning on the steps of the Carnegie Library. Let’s hope they can draw attention in the nation’s capital. Meanwhile, key scientific leaders will join Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, at an event at the same time in Buffalo.

This is an all-out effort that includes a recent letter from the American Society of Clinical Oncology and other groups asking Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to exempt cancer drugs from the sequestration cuts.

Lives are literally at stake. Cancer and heart disease are the leading causes of death. There are few people who do not know someone affected by the disease. Members of Congress must recognize the urgency.