WASHINGTON — Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price on Wednesday defended the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to medical research, saying that the National Institutes of Health budget is plagued by unnecessary expenses.
“Our goal is to fashion a budget that focuses on the things that work, that tries to decrease the areas where there are either duplications or redundancies or waste, and whether indeed we can get a larger return for the American taxpayer,” Price told a House committee.
Price also noted that given across-the-board HHS spending cuts, the NIH next year will continue to receive roughly one-third of total department funding.
The remarks came a day after reports that the administration had proposed an additional $1.2 billion cut to the NIH for the current fiscal year, on top of a suggested $5.8 billion cut for 2018. The NIH’s 2016 budget totaled $32.3 billion.
Republicans and Democrats alike questioned Price on the nature of the cuts at a health appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday. Members of Congress from both parties have expressed either skepticism or flat unwillingness to support President Trump’s initial 2018 budget recommendations.
Price repeatedly suggested reducing the amount the NIH pays universities to cover “overhead” costs, like lab equipment and utilities. That would let the agency direct more of its funds to actual research, even if the overall budget were reduced, he said.
“I was struck by one thing at NIH,” Price said, “and that is that about 30 percent of the grant money that goes out is used for indirect expenses, which as you know means that that money goes for something other than the research that’s being done.”
Representative Tom Cole, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the subcommittee, replied: “We look forward to working with you to find ways to stretch those dollars further.”
Cole had previously told STAT that the proposed cut to the NIH budget was a nonstarter.
Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, a Democrat, pressed Price on the administration’s plan to consolidate the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality back into the broader NIH.
“We envision the opportunity for the NIH to assume the important duties of AHRQ, and then to decrease or reduce or eliminate the duplication and redundancies,” Price said. “Clearly, some of the kinds of things that are being done at NIH are also being done at AHRQ, and so we look forward to the opportunity to fold AHRQ into NIH and gain those efficiencies but also make sure we’re continuing to fulfill [AHRQ’s] mission.”
The AHRQ received $428 million in HHS funding in 2016, and has a stated mission “to produce evidence to make health care safer, higher quality, more accessible, equitable, and affordable.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that AHRQ received funding from NIH.