Profiles of Progress: Members of Congress Fighting for Cures

Released: 2010

Senator Benjamin L. Cardin

For U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, the benefits of the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health (NIH) are very close to home.

“Clearly, America leads the world in medical research,” said Senator Cardin. “And if you have a rare or complex medical condition, you come to Maryland for treatment at NIH, or to one of the great academic medical centers in our state. Maryland is the epicenter for medical research.”

Approximately 10 percent of NIH’s budget supports projects conducted by nearly 6,000 scientists in its own laboratories, most of which are on the NIH campus in Bethesda, Maryland1. But it’s not just Maryland that sees the benefits of NIH. Currently more than 50,000 competitive research grants go to more than 325,000 researchers in every state and around the world help further biomedical advancement, thanks to NIH2.

“The work at NIH is cutting edge. There, researchers are exploring ways to treat serious illnesses—cancer, diabetes, AIDS, mental illnesses. The answers we seek are being derived from the basic research at NIH.”
Senator Cardin supports biomedical research because it creates the foundation for the next generation of drugs and technologies to combat our nation’s health challenges. “The basic research funded by NIH is used by biotech and medical device firms to develop the therapies that improve the quality of life for millions of patients,” he said.

Through two competitive grant programs–the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Technology Transfer Research (STTR)—a small percentage of NIH extramural research funds are directed to the nation’s small high-tech companies.

But Senator Cardin believes that discovering effective treatments and cures is only one benefit of NIH. He also sees the agency as an economic engine that spurs job creation through research positions, and additional jobs that are necessary to support research and that come out of basic research discoveries.

“These are the types of well-paying jobs that American communities need. I’ve visited many of the biotech companies in Maryland; so many of them depend on the basic research performed at NIH. So this vital agency is not only developing treatments and cures, it’s also creating the jobs that help our economy.”

As a federal legislator for more than two decades, Senator Cardin is well aware of the impact that Congressional funding decisions have on the future of the world’s health. “The support that Congress gives to medical research is critically important, not just for this nation, but also for the international community. In many cases, the work done here is partnered with other projects around the world, but the leadership comes from right here in America—from NIH.”

A native of Baltimore, Senator Cardin knows that the work of NIH has the potential to close profound gaps here at home that affect both the quality and cost of health care. “Health reform will change the direction of health care in America—getting everyone into the system, and bringing down the overall cost of care. But to improve quality, we must eliminate the health disparities in our nation,” he said.

Health disparities is a term that encompasses inequalities in health status—differences in health conditions and outcomes, and health care—differences in the services offered to people with similar conditions.

“Health disparities exact an enormous human and economic toll on our nation. Our nation’s overall health status clearly depends on our ability to improve the health of our fastest-growing communities and eliminate the disparities that are evidenced by higher rates of infant mortality and debilitating diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer,” said Senator Cardin.

Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health confirms that African American children have a 60 percent higher prevalence of asthma than white children, Native Americans and Alaska Natives are 2.3 times as likely to have diabetes as whites, and Asian/Pacific Islander men and women have three times the incidence of liver and IBD cancer as whites.

“Some differences are attributable to lower rates of insurance coverage. Minorities—African Americans, Latinos, and Asians—constitute one-third of America’s population, but half of the uninsured,” Senator Cardin pointed out. “But even when you control for insurance coverage and income, studies have verified that minority patients receive lower quality health care. This means that we must have a national strategy to close the gaps. We need to know how we can best reach out to minority communities and address their needs. Unless you have a focus within NIH where basic research is done, we will not deal with it as effectively as we should. The good news is that with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, we have new tools to address disparities.”

Senator Cardin authored a provision in the new health care law to establish Offices of Minority Health in six agencies of the Department of Health and Human Services and elevate the NIH’s National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NCMHD) to an Institute. The new law clarifies the role of the new Institute Director as coordinator and manager of the NIH-wide minority health and health disparities portfolio, and provides the new Institute with professional judgment over NIH-wide minority health and health disparities budgets and funding. The new Institute will conduct and support research, training, and other programs including centers of excellence, research endowment and community based participatory research initiatives.

Senator Cardin believes that the new Institute is critically important so that “we can provide better quality services to all Americans, help bring down the overall cost of health care, and make this nation stronger.”

In summarizing his reasons for supporting NIH funding, Senator Cardin says, “It’s about maintaining our place as the leader in medical innovation; it’s about growing our economy and keeping the best trained and best educated scientists here in America. We have great academic medical centers and great biomedical companies. And NIH is the catalyst for creating the synergy of economic growth in our country.

“A vibrant NIH means a stronger economy and better lives for the people of this nation. It would be very short-sighted to cut back in an area that could mean real economic growth for America.”