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Investing In Our future

By PAM BERNS

   Labor Day is upon us. The job market continues to remain stagnant. Obama is getting blamed for a lame economy, but unfortunately, he inherited two wars and $10.7 trillion of debt.
   The majority in one recent poll blamed the wars as the cause of our economic plight. But tax cuts for the highest earners have had a much more devastating effect on the current economic situation than the wars. And we’ve repeatedly learned some facts in the past four decades: namely, “trickle down” doesn’t work. In the Bush and Reagan years, the gross debt quadrupled; it is now over $14.66 trillion.
   The recent spectacle of holding the debt ceiling in ransom for cuts in domestic spending has weakened our reputation as well as savings for ordinary Americans and investors throughout the world. Freshman Congressional House members are talking about limiting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to balance the budget. Have we lost our senses? What about jobs?
   The New Republic recently published an essay by Daniel Callahan and Sherwin B. Nuland on “how American medicine is destroying itself.” The authors examine how, despite Nixon’s War on Cancer and other initiatives, stem cell research and mapping the human genome have not proven to be the lifesavers we had hoped them to be. Let’s be serious, we have barely begun this kind of research. It’s hardly time to throw in the towel.
   Meanwhile there has been a lot of press coverage about encouraging suicide when patients have reached a point where life becomes too miserable or expensive. Do we really want those we love to feel obligated to end their own lives?
   David Brooks of the New York Times recently wrote a column about health care spending: “The fiscal crisis is driven largely by health care costs.” He has a point, but our crisis is also a result of our half-baked priorities—wars without exit plans and spending our hard- earned capital on breaks to the wealthiest companies on the planet.
   I believe we are looking at this picture in the wrong light.
   The most important thing we can do is fully fund medical research on cures, not focus on treating symtoms. The National Institutes of Health are funded with less than $32 billion. This is a pittance, considering that many of the NIH grants are 5 years or longer, so that leaves very little in new funding for drug and clinical trials. Why? There is nothing as important as finding cures for our most costly diseases. Right now, only 1 out of 5 new grant applications are funded, according to The Economist. This is truly an atrocity if we are serious about our future. According to the Washington Post, the Pentagon is asking for $107 billion for Afghanistan this fiscal year. Medical research should take priority over fighting futile wars around the world.
    Many of our fears about the deficit are based on projections centered on the care of Americans with illnesses that cost billions of dollars. Medical research should be our jobs program.

The Jobs Program We Should Be Talking About
   One out of two or one out of three of us will get cancer in our lifetimes. The American Cancer Society claims that the total costs of cancer in 2008, including lost productivity, were $228.1 billion.
   According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, Parkinson’s Disease costs nearly $25 billion a year in the United States. Men are one and a half times more likely to have the disease than women. Pesticides, fungicides, insecticides and environmental toxins are suspected causes, including paraquat, beta-hexachlorocyclohexane, and Agent Orange.
   Another expensive disease, Multiple Sclerosis, costs us $28 billion in medical expenses and lost productivity every year. MS involves an autoimmune process that attacks the myelin that insulates the nerve fibers of the brain, spinal cord and optic nerves. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, it is suspected that an environmental agent that patients are exposed to before the age of 15 may predispose them to developing the disease later in life.
    The Alzheimer’s Association writes that the cost of health and long-time care for Alzheimer’s or other dementia patients is three times the cost of a person without the illness. There are now 5.3 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, and one out of eight baby boomers will get this disease unless a cure is found. The organization writes that Alzheimer’s and other dementias cost $148 billion in 2005. Without a cure, by 2050 Alzheimers is projected to cost over $1 trillion every year, according to Callahan and Nuland.
    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that in 2010, heart disease costs the U.S. $316.4 billion, including health care services, medication and lost productivity.
   When you add up the costs of these diseases, you have $744.5 billion in health care costs each year that, if cures could be found, could have an enormous impact on our deficit and national debt and over the course of a decade, could not only make life incredibly better for all of us, but help solve our national debt by eliminating trillions of dollars of debt over the span of a decade.
   Tobacco use has a significant impact on many of these diseases, and so do pesticides, which are major contributors. Let’s promote farming that doesn’t require pesticide use. It is time to phase out dangerous carcinogens in the marketplace. The price for permitting lobbyists to manipulate Congress into sheltering these damaging products is too costly.
   Those who criticize a jobs initiative are thinking short-term. It’s time to aggressively combat disease by funding cures. Those are our long-term and short-term solutions to both a sagging economy, unemployment and the looming medical costs and old age responsibilities on the horizon. We have to invest heavily in medical research. We need to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in our federal budget to find cures. Our current priorities are not acceptable if we are truly serious about our future.
   If unemployed Americans were to be hired to work in research facilities and universities, and if medical research were adequately funded today, we could help solve our unemployment crisis as well as our national debt by curing patients throughout the world. It would be incredible. We just have to have the will.

Published: August 20, 2011
Issue: Fall 2011 Issue