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Politicians, scientists push back against fiscal cliff

Members of Congress, medical professionals, and patient activists urged Congress to avoid cutting funding to the National Institutes of Health at a Columbia University Medical Center event Monday morning.

The NIH, Columbia’s top source of federal funding, could face a budget cut of up to $2.5 billion if Congress doesn’t act to avoid a set of budget cuts, known as sequestration, that is set to take effect January 2. On Monday, panelists including Rep. Charles Rangel argued that the cuts would endanger the long-term economic health of New York City and make it more difficult for doctors and researchers to study deadly diseases.

“What is saved in the short term, like the budget, is lost in the long term, in terms of lives lost,” Lee Goldman, Columbia’s executive vice president for health and biomedical sciences, said.

Goldman noted that research funded by the NIH has led to huge advances in cardiology, his field of expertise.

“Avoiding sequestration is critical, but just the first step,” he said. “We lose ground in budgetary battles every year.”

Members of the panel said that sequestration could result in $167 million worth of cuts in research money that would otherwise go to New York State institutions. According to a study by the Association of Medical Schools in New York, those cuts would result in an overall loss of $1.25 billion to the state economy.

Rangel was joined on the panel by fellow U.S. representatives Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, CC ’69, whose district includes Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus. Rangel vowed to fight for a budgetary deal in Washington that averts sequestration.

“Coming from New York, we are building the best for our nation,” he said. “The standards for health care are created here. It not only creates jobs, it saves lives and keeps people out of hospital.”

Sequestration stems from an August 2011 deal that Congress reached to raise the debt ceiling, in which members of Congress agreed to $1.2 trillion in mandatory across-the-board spending cuts—cuts that would only take effect if a super-committee of representatives and senators failed to agree on even deeper cuts. The super-committee failed to agree on cuts, and sequestration is now scheduled to hit at the beginning of next year.

Nadler said that averting the so-called “fiscal cliff” is critical, arguing that sequestration is something “no intelligent government would do.” Like Maloney and Rangel, Nadler voted against the original debt ceiling deal.

“The progress we have made is all because of medical research—most of it federal, NIH research,” Nadler said. “The idea that we would cut that is unspeakable.”

Siddhartha Mukherjee, a clinical medicine professor and Pulitzer Prize winner, said that NIH funding is crucial to researching diseases like HIV.

“There was nothing I was doing in the clinic this morning whose lineage cannot be traced back to the … NIH research,” he said.

Also on the panel was 14-year-old Brianna Commerford, a survivor of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma who called herself a “living example” of the value of medical research.

“I’ve spent two years in hospitals and clinics. I’m back to living a normal life because of research,” she said. “The only way that kids get better is through that.”

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