Defunding Health Programs Could Be The Ultimate Death Panel

Your money or your health. The message from Washington these days is that we have to choose.

The budget axe would fall on a range of crucial health programs under the spending resolution recently passed by the House of Representatives. The new House leadership promised efforts to defund health reform, but these cuts go well beyond that. The Senate blocked the cuts for now, but the battle continues.

The House bill would bring major reductions in the budgets for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and community health centers. These agencies and programs have nothing to do with implementing health reform. They are key parts of the infrastructure that has kept us healthy for decades.

Take NIH. It is the single most important source of support for biomedical research in the world. The drug industry depends on it to fund discoveries that lead to new cures. Without it, many of the drugs we take for granted today would never have been developed. With a diminished NIH budget, we may never know what miracle treatments for cancer, heart disease and other killers we have missed.

CDC is the nation’s frontline defense against disease threats, whether they are natural, like SARS and bird flu, or manmade, like weapons of bioterrorism. No other agency has the expertise or resources to monitor disease outbreaks, recommend responses, and protect the public health nationwide. Cuts to CDC could leave us defenseless.

Prevention programs run by CDC would be especially hard-hit. These initiatives help Americans stave off conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Prevention should be among the least controversial of government expenses. The cost is miniscule compared to other health programs, but the payoff is gigantic in lives saved and in disease and suffering prevented.

Cuts to community health centers could limit care for 11 million patients. These people have nowhere else to go.

These agencies and programs are easy targets for politicians because their efforts are often invisible. We don’t usually see NIH when we open a bottle of pills or CDC when we walk down the street without fear of deadly contagion. Yet, many of us owe our lives to these agencies.

We also benefit when those around us are healthy. People who get vaccines at community health centers are less likely to spread infections. People who receive preventive care don’t run up health insurance bills for avoidable diseases. They are also more productive contributors to the economy.

We spend money on health because it is basic to our individual wellbeing and to that of the country. We won’t do the economy, the federal budget, or ourselves any favor by skimping on it.

Last December, Congress passed a package of tax cuts with an estimated price tag of over $800 billion. The savings from slashing our health infrastructure would amount to a tiny fraction of that sum. The health cuts would have a negligible effect on the federal deficit in the short-term, and they could actually increase it over the long-run by leaving our country with more disease and illness to treat.

The tax cuts may make some of us feel a little bit richer, as least for a while. The health cuts could make most of us less healthy. Could that trade-off possibly be worthwhile?

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