NIH Director Defends Jump in Mandatory Spending

The Department of Health and Human Services decreased its discretionary funding request this year by about $658 million, but increased how much mandatory funding the agency wants for areas like fighting opioid abuse and behavioral health reforms.

“Our request recognizes the restraints in our budget environment, and includes over the next decade targeted reforms to Medicare and Medicaid and other programs that will save about $240 billion for the taxpayers over the next decade,” HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell said at a briefing for reporters Tuesday. “But those high level numbers don’t tell the whole story.”

Some of the increases in mandatory spending include a $500 million proposal to expand access to mental health treatment, $755 million in mandatory funds for the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration for the initiative to accelerate developing treatments for cancer and $1 billion of mandatory spending to treat opioid abuse.

Political pressure on all these issues has increased in recent months, and have at least some, if not significant, bipartisan support to advance legislation this year, but it’s unclear how much funding Congress will be willing to allocate to the initiatives.

Much of the added mandatory funding would go towards the NIH, bringing their total requested funding to $33.1 billion. NIH Director Francis Collins defended the decision to request less discretionary funds in favor of more mandatory funding, particularly for medical research.

“All I can say is in my experience over these last seven years as NIH director, I have found the Congress to be intensely interested in medical research, and that’s true regardless of party and regardless of house,” Collins told reporters Tuesday. “And certainly the conversations that have happened already about the cancer moonshot have indicated they are going to look at this with great interest and great intensity, because everybody is concerned about the toll that cancer takes.”