Obama budget boosts medical research, tackles drug prices
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WASHINGTON — President Obama’s final budget proposal to Congress asks for big increases across the board in medical research and public health in an attempt to maintain new momentum for supporting disease research, as well as to deal with the emerging threat of the Zika virus.

He’s also calling for some targeted measures to address rising prescription drug prices. Those include greater price transparency and a new endorsement of his previous proposals to allow Medicare to negotiate drug costs.

For the second year in a row, Obama wants a significant increase for the National Institutes of Health. He wants to boost the agency’s budget to $33.1 billion, an increase of $825 million — enough to pay for 10,000 new medical research grants, according to the White House.

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And Obama wants an extra $116 million to help the Food and Drug Administration review new medications and make sure they’re safe.

Obama is also calling for a $900 million increase for the National Science Foundation and related agencies to boost support for basic research. And he wants $300 million for his precision medicine initiative — an effort to find treatments that can be targeted to an individual’s genetic makeup. That’s more than $100 million above the amount Congress approved for the current fiscal year.

The increases come on top of the big health funding proposals the White House has already announced: more than $1.8 billion in emergency funding to fight the Zika virus, $755 million to launch Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot initiative, and $1.1 billion to help reduce opioid abuse.

Congress would have the final say, and the Republicans who control the House and Senate are unlikely to give Obama everything he wants. Still, NIH director Francis Collins said he was optimistic, especially on the cancer research funds. “I have found Congress to be very interested in medical research, regardless of party and regardless of house,” he told reporters at a briefing.

In addition, Obama is calling for a $45 million increase for the BRAIN initiative — the project to map the human brain — as well as an additional $43 million to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to a fact sheet released by the Department of Health and Human Services.

A further $915 million would go toward emergency preparedness funding at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and related agencies.

Building on prior boosts

The new funding — if approved by Congress — would continue the pattern of recent big investments in medical research, which began with the federal funding bill Obama signed into law in December that reversed the recent trend of stagnant medical research budgets.

That December package included a $2 billion boost for NIH, the agency’s biggest funding increase in 12 years, as well as a $350 million increase for research on Alzheimer’s disease. It also contained $200 million for Obama’s precision medicine initiative and an $85 million funding hike for the BRAIN Initiative.

The budget also includes a package of measures to crack down on rising prescription drug prices. Obama’s proposal to let Medicare negotiate drug prices, an idea also favored by the Democratic presidential candidates, isn’t new — he included it in last year’s budget, too.

But his new budget would give HHS the authority to make drug manufacturers disclose information on how they set prices, including their research and development costs and any discounts they use. It also includes proposals to give people more access to generic drugs and biologics.

Furthermore, a federal-state “Medicaid negotiating pool” would help states drive down the cost of expensive drugs for their Medicaid programs, the budget proposes.

Facing Congress

Obama’s budget covers his funding requests for the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. There’s no guarantee that all of his proposals will be approved by Congress, which is controlled by Republicans.

So far, GOP lawmakers have been open to Obama’s ideas — especially on cancer research funding — but they’re skeptical of how he wants to pay for it. With the cancer moonshot, for example, Obama wants to fund the research through mandatory spending, which is automatic and doesn’t have to go through the congressional appropriations process. Republicans would rather approve the money through the normal procedures.

In a statement, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers said his committee would make “informed, thoughtful, line-by-line funding decisions” about Obama’s requests, but dismissed the overall budget plan as “a spending wish list that doesn’t reflect our real budgetary constraints and that would saddle hardworking Americans with additional taxes and fees.”

This story has been updated with more details on funding increases and Obama’s proposals to lower drug prices.

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