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Effects of sequester may cost us lives

At 11:59 p.m. on March 1, sequestration took effect, resulting in automatic across-the-board cuts to many medical schools and teaching hospitals and the patients they serve, as well as vital funding for medical research supported by the National Institutes of Health and support for graduate medical education.

The NIH estimates that sequestration will result in a $1.5 billion cut in federal funding for medical research in the first year alone, and it is grappling with how to minimize the damage to the nation’s research engine. More than half of all NIH-funded research is conducted by medical schools and teaching hospitals, so the cuts will hit institutions such as the Indiana University School of Medicine particularly hard.

Last year, the IU School of Medicine received nearly $120 million in research funding from teh NIH out of roughly $260 million in research grants. If sequestration persists, research funding will decline, but the precise amount is unknown.

An interruption in research, even for a few weeks, may mean years of progress lost – years that could mean life or death for patients for whom medical research is their only hope.

Indeed, NIH Director Francis Collins says these cuts are a “profound and devastating” blow at a time of unprecedented scientific opportunity.

Sequestration will affect the state’s economy. The majority of research funds are used to employ people – people who bring biological discoveries to clinical settings – with the remainder used for specialized equipment and supplies. Job loss will be both a direct and indirect result of decreased research funding and sequestration.

IU Bloomington, Purdue and Notre Dame all receive NIH funds, so the overall effect to our state’s economy is magnified.

Sequestration will also have a significant effect on support for graduate medical education (residency training programs). The IU School of Medicine has been increasing its class size since 2006 to stem the state’s physician shortage, and any cuts to graduate medical education will result in fewer doctors being trained and practicing not only in Indiana, but across the country. In this way, sequestration will have a disproportionate effect on our academic medical center and our ability to care for our sickest and most vulnerable patients, now and in the future.

To continue to address the health challenges of our aging and increasingly diverse population, plus remain a vibrant force in the global economy, Congress and the administration must work together to find a solution that ends sequestration. The health of millions of Hoosiers depends on it.

D. Craig Brater is the dean of the IU School of Medicine. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.