Senate blocks restrictions on medical research funding in defense budget

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The Senate voted 66-32 in favor a budget amendment to nullify a proposal to place restrictions on the more than $1 billion in medical research funded annually through the defense budget.

The restrictions were proposed in separate amendments introduced by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona. His provisions would have made it more difficult for Congress to fund research for general health concerns like breast cancer, ALS and epilepsy through the Department of Defense’s Congressionally Directed Medical Research Program.

One of the provisions would've required the defense secretary to certify each medical research grant was dedicated to conditions related to serving on a battlefield or common among service members. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, argued that definition is too narrow.  

“It is absolutely critical that we maintain funding for research into causes, treatments and therapies for diseases that affect those who serve on the battlefield, their spouses and dependents,” Murkowski said in a statement. “It is especially important to support ALS research, which is presumptively service-connected and, for reasons still unexplained, has a much higher rate of incidence among military members than members of the public.”

Murkowski signed on to the amendment intended to block McCain’s provisions, which also included additional scrutiny for any medical research facility receiving defense grants. The chief sponsor of the opposing amendment, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, argued such a provision would “strangle medical research programs in the Department of Defense with red tape.”

“Why in the world would you hold a university in any state that is customarily involved in medical research to the same auditing standards as major defense contractors?” Durbin asked in a press conference Tuesday.

Durbin said when the research program was first launched in 1992, when he was serving in the House, its goal was to fund breast cancer research in response to higher rates of cancer in female military members. The amount of overall funding available in the program has grown from $25 million in 1992 to $1.3 billion in 2016.

As for oversight, Durbin said that’s already covered by the Institute of Medicine within the National Academy of Sciences, ensuring research conducted through the defense budget isn’t duplicative of work funded by another agency like the National Institutes of Health.

Medical groups and universities, including the American Heart Association and John Hopkins University, sent a letter to McCain earlier in June opposing the amendment, saying if enacted, the provisions “could jeopardize funding for research activities that have broader relevance to the U.S. military, including the health and well-being of military families and veterans, and the efficiency of the military health care system.”

McCain had proposed similar amendments to the defense budget before.

“I'm all for medical research. I'm all in. The National Institutes of Health has done great things," McCain said to The Hill in June 2015. “But when we take it out of defense spending rather than what it should be taken out of, which is Health and Human Services, then I object to that.”