Sequestration: Putting Public Health in Peril
On January 2, 2013, most federal programs, including both defense and nondefense programs, will undergo automatic cuts to reduce the federal deficit. These cuts are the result of a “sequestration” to automatically and uniformly cut $1.2 trillion from the budget. The consequences of sequestration are dire for public health: Without funding, progress in scientific and medical research will be halted, leaving innovative discoveries in disease prevention and treatment firmly out of our grasp. Students will no longer pursue careers in areas critical to public health due to the significant lack of funding for education and training. The United States will lose traction as a leader in scientific discovery and will not be competitive on a global scale. Jobs will be lost and health care costs will rise, causing our economy to suffer greatly. While members of Congress still have the remainder of the 112th congressional session to implement alternative steps to reduce the federal deficit and avoid sequestration, no solution seems imminent.
How did we reach this point? The bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (also known as “the super committee”) was created by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and charged with recommending measures to reduce the federal deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over a 10‐year period. The super committee failed to reach a deficit reduction solution, so a “spending sequester” is now upon us. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that cutting more than $1 trillion from the budget roughly translates into 7.8 percent across-the-board cuts for discretionary programs that cover important areas, including public health, education, scientific and medical research and food safety. Since federal programs such as the Veterans Affairs Department, Pell Grant, and Medicaid are exempt from sequestration, however, cuts may be closer to 8.4 percent for discretionary programs. Although many areas of public health have already experienced flat or reduced funding in recent years, cuts of 8.4 percent or more will severely limit progress in science and medicine in ways that we have yet to see.
While budget cuts are still necessary to reduce the federal deficit, a more balanced approach can be taken to protect the health and wellbeing of all Americans and the U.S. economy. Educating members of Congress on the negative impacts of sequestration is crucial to reaching agreement on a more balanced approach in the limited timeframe available. Congress recently cleared the Sequestration Transparency Act, which requires the White House to outline exactly how and where the automatic budget cuts will be applied to both defense and domestic programs. Until that information is available, organizations are doing their part by releasing reports that show the harsh consequences of sequestration on domestic programs that are related to public health.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman and Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) published a report with state data on the impact of sequestration (based on 7.8 percent cuts). The report, “Under Threat: Sequestration’s Impact on Nondefense Jobs and Services,” shows that cuts to domestic programs may result in negative impacts that are more far-reaching than cuts to defense spending. For example, 17 million fewer meals will be served to senior citizens in need; 659,476 fewer people will be tested for HIV; 48,845 fewer women will be screened for cancer; and 211,958 fewer children will be vaccinated.
The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) issued an analysis of the impact of sequestration on biomedical research, particularly at the National Institutes of Health where more than $2 billion in extramural grants could be lost (based on 9.1 percent cuts). Critical research programs will be immobilized, jobs will be lost, and the economy will ultimately suffer. The analysis also indicates that young investigators may be discouraged from entering scientific and medical research fields because of the significant lack of funding or they will leave these fields, which are vital to public health, to pursue more viable options, causing public health to suffer for many years beyond those under the sequestration. Research!America also notes that more than $3 billion dollars will be cut from various federal agencies that primarily fund health research due to sequestration (based on 7.8 percent cuts). Without new medical treatments and cures, health care costs will continue to rise, and U.S. competitiveness in research and development and innovations to fuel our economy will lag behind.
What can you do to help? Educate members of Congress on the important research and work that you do each day to improve public health and how it will be negatively impacted by the significant budget cuts sequestration brings. Congress needs to hear from the people that matter most to them—their constituents. Professional organizations like the American Society for Nutrition stand at the ready to help their members reach out to Congress. Make plans to meet with your members of Congress in your district or in Washington, D.C. Participate in Town Hall meetings and other events held by members of Congress in your community. Make your voice heard by writing editorials for local papers and commenting on social media. The Coalition for Health Funding has provided a toolkit to help you educate Congress and urge members to take a balanced approach to budget cuts to save essential public health jobs and services. Organizations and individuals can use the customizable materials provided in the toolkit to show how budget cuts negatively impact their line of work and research, and ultimately public health.
The American Society for Nutrition (ASN) is a professional scientific society dedicated to bringing together the world's top researchers, clinical nutritionists and industry to advance the knowledge and application of nutrition to promote health. ASN’s over 4,500 members are helping Americans to live longer, healthier and more productive lives.