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Determined Higgins battles for get more funding for Roswell Park

WASHINGTON – Pushing back hard against any further state funding cuts to Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Rep. Brian Higgins is proposing just the opposite.

The Buffalo Democrat in an interview last week said that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ought to consider using part of the “Buffalo billion” in aid targeted to the region to help boost the venerable cancer hospital, which finds itself in a financial pinch because of long-term cuts in state and federal funding.

“It would seem to me that a compelling use of the Buffalo billion would be to look at bolstering the national standing of a beloved institution in Buffalo and Western New York that just so happens to show the greatest potential for job growth and high-end employment,” Higgins said.

For example, Higgins said part of the Buffalo billion could be used to set up a research endowment at Roswell that would aim to land “rock-star” researchers and fund cutting-edge cancer studies that would have national or worldwide impact. Alternatively, the money could be used in other ways that Roswell’s management team thinks would improve the hospital’s standing, Higgins said.

A spokesman for Cuomo offered no direct comment on Higgins’ proposal that part of the Buffalo billion be used to bolster Roswell.

“This administration needs no convincing of the importance of Roswell Park to the economic and literal health of the greater Buffalo area,” said Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo. “We’re working with all parties to ensure it stays that way.”

Similarly, Roswell spokeswoman Annie Deck-Miller said hospital officials would have no comment on Higgins’ proposal.

Higgins said his comments stem from concerns, voiced in a Buffalo News article last week, that Roswell may somehow have to lower its ambitions – or become part of the University at Buffalo School of Medicine – because of continuing financial pressures. Such talk could diminish Roswell’s national reputation and possibly endanger its status as one of 41 federally designated comprehensive cancer centers nationwide, Higgins warned.

Rather than merely accepting a diminished role for Roswell, the community ought to fight hard to make Roswell stronger than ever, he said.

“What we ought to be doing is asking Roswell: What do we need to be doing to bolster your standing in the nation and in the world?” Higgins said. “And any talk of diminishing the significance of Roswell Park Cancer Institute is misdirected and counterproductive relative to that objective.”

While Higgins – a member of the minority in a Republican-led House that has been slashing federal cancer funding – has little direct say in Roswell’s future, he signaled in the interview that he’s willing to use his bully pulpit as a congressman to keep Roswell front and center.

In fact, he likened his fight for Roswell’s future to his mid-2000s crusade to keep more of the profits from the New York State Power Authority’s Niagara Power Project in Western New York – a successful effort that created a pot of money that’s been used to revive Buffalo’s waterfront.

“I want to prepare the Buffalo community to make the argument to the governor and his office about the unique story of Roswell Park Cancer Institute for Buffalo historically, for Buffalo’s current economy, and as a place that shows dynamic growth over the next five years,” Higgins said. “And that’s the criteria the governor himself has outlined for the Buffalo billion.”

Such an investment would run counter, though, to the efforts several governors have made to try to make Roswell – now allied with the state Department of Health – stand on its own.

Governors dating back to George E. Pataki have been cutting Roswell’s funding, and as a result, the state – which once provided Roswell with half its funding – now only provides 16 percent of the hospital’s revenue.

Pushing that trend one step further, Cuomo originally proposed making Roswell Park “operationally independent” from the state after this year. But after widespread concerns surfaced in Buffalo over that proposal, the state agreed to keep funding Roswell, requiring it instead to draw up a self-sufficiency plan that’s due Jan. 1.

For his part, Higgins sounded like a walking advertisement for Roswell.

“Roswell was the first comprehensive cancer center in the United States,” he said. “It gave the world chemotherapy because of the research that was going on there in 1904. … Several studies linking smoking to cancer were pioneered at Roswell. And clinical trials are going on there today to test the efficacy of vaccines not only for prevention, but for cancer therapy.”

What’s more, Roswell anchors the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, which is expected to add 4,000 jobs in the next five years. Given how important the medical campus is to the region’s future, the Buffalo community ought to rise up and fight to make sure Roswell remains one of the nation’s top cancer hospitals, Higgins said.

If the hospital loses its status as a national comprehensive cancer center, “this is like the Buffalo Bills being moved somewhere else,” he added.

And to explain the lack, to date, of an impassioned community movement to defend Roswell, Higgins made two more sports analogies, both ugly and painful.

“It’s a typical Buffalo response to think our fate as a community is determined by external forces over which we have no control,” he said. “No goal, wide right – it all speaks to that narrative. But the narrative ought to be that of a community on the rise, as Buffalo is.”

That being the case, he said, it’s time for the community to fight keep Roswell rising, too.

“We as a community shouldn’t be capitulating to what someone from outside might think is a good idea without taking into consideration how substantial, both primarily and secondarily, Roswell Park is to our community,” Higgins said.