Draft Legislation Would Shift NIH Authority, Funding
As part of an effort to reauthorize NIH for the first time since 1993, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Joe Barton (R-Texas) on Tuesday released draft legislation that would consolidate institutes and centers at the agency, the Washington Post reports. The proposal would give the NIH director "unprecedented authority to decide federal spending priorities for biomedical research," according to the Post (Weiss, Washington Post, 7/20).
Reauthorization would allow lawmakers to make structural and administrative changes beyond those they make indirectly through the budgeting process. In March, Barton said the agency's growth from seven institutes in 1960 to 27 in 2005 has resulted in "largely independent" entities that do not work together efficiently. NIH has more than 60 separate research programs, which congressional appropriators fund through 26 separate line items (California Healthline, 3/18). The draft legislation, which Barton developed in consultation with NIH Director Elias Zerhouni and others, proposes consolidating NIH institutes into two divisions.
One division would center on specific diseases or organs and the other would focus on basic research. Under the plan, each institute and center would set aside a percentage of its budget for a common fund to be used for projects that overlap divisions. The two divisions, the NIH director and a third division created to coordinate overlapping research would have separate budgets -- reducing the number of NIH budget line items appropriated by Congress to four. Under the draft, the NIH director, following approval of the HHS secretary, would be given authority to establish or eliminate institutes and centers, with the total number of institutes and centers capped at 27. The proposal also would allow the NIH director to award research grants "independent of the agency's institutes and centers" the Post reports.
Zerhouni said, "I see great wisdom in what the committee is proposing," but he did not endorse the draft legislation, saying there are still details to be worked out. According to the Post, it remains "uncertain" how the Senate "would approach reauthorization and whether the process would become bogged down" with research restrictions or "politically motivated demands."
According to the Post, if the draft bill is enacted, "it could result in a major shake-up of long-standing hierarchies in the NIH." The proposal received "mixed reviews" from scientists, patient groups and medical school administrators, the Post reports. Some touted improved efficiency under the reorganization, while others said they were concerned the change will make NIH -- "and the nation's medical research agenda" -- "too beholden to a single political appointee," the Post reports. The American Cancer Society said there must be "an appropriate level of accountability" if the legislation is passed (Washington Post, 7/20).
NPR's "Morning Edition" on Wednesday reported on the NIH reauthorization proposal. The segment includes comments from Barton, Reps. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), Nathan Deal (R-Ga.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), and Zerhouni (Rovner, "Morning Edition," NPR, 7/20). The complete segment is available online in RealPlayer.This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.