Thompson Talks Funds, Stem Cell Research on Tour of NIH
Taking his first "formal tour" of the National Institutes of Health, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson yesterday answered questions about funding boosts and embryonic stem cell research, the Washington Times reports. While officials expressed appreciation for the Bush administration's proposed $2.75 billion funding boost to the agency -- a 13.7% rise that Thompson called the "largest one-year increase for the NIH" -- reporters later questioned whether it was enough to meet a congressional promise to double the agency's budget by fiscal year 2003. In a statement released yesterday, the American Heart Association and members of the research community said a 16.5% increase was needed, but Thompson supported the "administration's arithmetic," calling the $2.75 billion boost a "tremendous step forward" toward the overall budget goal. When asked about stem cell research, Thompson described the administration's position on the subject as "a little murky" (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 3/1). He said NIH's lawyers interpret current law to allow funding of embryonic stem cell research as long as any destruction of the embryos occurs "independent of [federally funded] research," but he added that this interpretation "has been questioned by other lawyers." Thompson said the administration will likely decide by summer whether to allow funding of stem cell research to proceed (Cimons, Los Angeles Times, 3/1). He also encouraged researchers to submit grant proposals for stem cell research by an existing March 15 deadline, saying that since review of such applications generally takes about four months, he would make recommendations on stem cell research "within the time frames" needed to avoid any delay of the grant process (Washington Times, 3/1).
While President Bush has proposed "Immediate Helping Hand," a stopgap initiative to provide prescription drug coverage for low-income Medicare beneficiaries, Thompson said that the plan "would merely be a Band-Aid approach to the complete facelift that Medicare really needs," the AP/Los Angeles Times reports. He asked, "If [lawmakers] pass prescription drugs without fixing Medicare, what's the catalyst to get them to fix Medicare?" Still, Thompson defended Bush's proposal, saying, "The president feels that Congress is not going to pass a Medicare reform proposal as quickly as he would like, and therefore he wants to make sure that our elderly citizens of America get access to drugs." According to Thompson, lawmakers, "wary" of a "complete Medicare overhaul," will likely back a proposal that would provide a drug benefit without "fundamentally changing" the program. "We know that Congress wants to pass prescription drugs," he said. Thompson also said that although he plans to back Bush's proposal to provide low-income Americans with tax credits to purchase private health insurance, he favors programs that would allow the uninsured to purchase health insurance from the government. "If tax credits are the way the president decides that he wants us to go, I'm going to follow him," he said, adding, "If Congress decides to go another way, I'm certainly there to offer advice as to what I think works in America" (McQueen, AP/Los Angeles Times, 3/1).