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Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 1999 /21 Tishrei, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Fox, Armstrong
make case for NIH -- CELEBRITIES REGULARLY waft on and off Capitol Hill to promote one cause or another, but next week champion bicyclist Lance Armstrong and actor Michael J. Fox will be here with especially compelling messages.

Armstrong, winner of the Tour de France, will testify Wednesday before the Joint Economic Committee about how the fruits of medical research saved his life from testicular cancer, formerly a certain killer.

Fox, currently star of the TV comedy, "Spin City," will appear Tuesday before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee to urge that more research money be devoted to curing the malady Parkinson's disease, which threatens his life in the long term.

As celebrities invariably do, the two will attract media, spectators and, probably, a full complement of Members of Congress. Other witnesses at the hearings will drive home the point that research not only saves lives, but also boosts the U.S. economy.

Both messages are timely because Congress faces the decision whether to continue on track toward doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health, or slack off the pace.

Armstrong and other witnesses on Wednesday - including a breast cancer survivor, a beneficiary of breakthroughs in arthritis treatment and a formerly deaf child who can hear thanks to cochlear implants - should convince Members that $2 billion more for NIH this year is worth it.

Fox and other witnesses Tuesday should convince Members that the miracles produced by research investments in cancer and AIDS are possible for Parkinson's and other neurological diseases, too.

Neuroscientists, including the top neuroscientist at NIH, have declared that Parkinson's can be cured within 10 years and that what's learned in the process can help cure Alzheimer's, Huntington's and other neurodegenerative diseases down the line.

If that's the case, the obvious question is: Why not do what it takes to achieve the cure and prolong one million lives? An increase of just $75 million a year in Parkinson's funding could also pay dividends in the billions.

As readers of this column know, I care about this because my wife, like Fox, suffers from Parkinson's. Fox, who's had the disease for eight years, experiences tremors and stiffness every day. My wife, who has had it for 13 years, can't walk and is losing her ability to speak.

Personal interest aside, there are multiple economic arguments to be made for doubling the NIH budget over a five-year period and extending the research and development tax credit that encourages private research.

The arguments should appeal not only to Members of Congress, but also to presidential candidates. So far, only Republican Elizabeth Dole has come out for doubling NIH's budget.

Vice President Al Gore proposes only doubling the cancer research budget, so there's an opportunity for former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., and Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) to trump him and gain favor politically among the millions of people who suffer from diseases other than cancer.

The economic case for expanding research will be made to the Joint Economic Committee by, among others, investment guru Peter Lynch, CEOs of several biotech companies and Arthur Ullian, chairman of the Task Force on Science, Health Care and the Economy.

Ullian contends, in fact, that a new look needs to be taken at the value of health care to the economy overall. Instead of being seen simply as a cost, he asserts, health outlays should be valued as a contributor to economic growth.

Had there been no health improvements in the United States since 1900, when average life expectancy was 47, he argues, the U.S. population would be half what it is today and gross domestic product would be less than half.

Healthier people produce more, consume more, pay more taxes and cost less in terms of lost productivity and chronic care outlays. Declines in chronic disability among the elderly, some studies indicate, may keep the Medicare system solvent.

In addition, he argues, federal and private bioscience investments - especially in genetics and high-tech imaging - are paying huge dividends not only in pharmaceuticals and medical devices that can be sold worldwide, but in the chemical and computer industries and in agriculture.

President Clinton often says that while the 20th century has been the century of physics, the 21st will be the century of biology. Ironically, however, his budgets for NIH annually ask for far less than Congress approves.

Last year, thanks to such advocates of medical research as Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., whose subcommittee is hearing from Fox, and Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla., chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, Congress approved a 14.6 percent increase for NIH, setting the agency on a five-year track to double.

Clinton's fiscal 2000 budget, however, calls for only a 2.4 percent increase. Last week, another leading champion of NIH, Rep. John Porter, R-Ill., managed to get a 9 percent increase through his House Appropriations subcommittee.

Specter is reported to believe he can match last year's bump, but he faces opposition from Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., and, especially, Majority Whip Don Nickles, R-Okla.

Lance Armstrong and Michael J. Fox, after they finish testifying before advocates of medical research, need to also to tell the doubters how important it is that lives be saved.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, NEA