Blair Horner: Sequester Cuts Begin To Bite

Apr 29, 2013

Americans are starting to feel the bite of the federal sequestration.  Sequestration is the term referring to the automatic, across-the-board budget cuts in the federal government’s domestic and military budgets.  Sequestration went into effect last month when Congress was unable to agree on an alternative.

Late last week, the sequestration started to affect airline passengers.

The sequestration cuts had forced the FAA to begin furloughing tens of thousands of air traffic controllers across the country.  Those furloughs – which reduce the amount of time an air traffic controller works, thus cutting their salaries, but also reduce the ability of airports to monitor airline take-offs and landings – resulted in nationwide backlog of late flights.  With that cut starting to bite, a public backlash prompted Congress to reconsider, and fully fund high-profile FAA operations.

Lawmakers were concerned about deepening public resentment over the delays caused by the furloughs of controllers.

Airline passengers have grown increasingly irritated over the past week with delays at major hubs like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Atlanta.  Some had reported delays of several hours in takeoff times and planes being put in holding patterns in the air.  Many pilots blame furloughs for landing delays.

And so a compromise was worked out that allowed the FAA the flexibility to deal with the cuts while maintaining air service.

While the impact of sequestration has been minimized by Congressional action, other cuts are not so easily fixed.  Take for example the impact on cancer clinics.  Cancer clinics across the country have begun turning away thousands of Medicare patients, blaming the sequester budget cuts.

Oncologists say the reduced funding, which took effect for Medicare on April 1, makes it impossible to administer expensive chemotherapy drugs while staying afloat financially.

Patients at these clinics would need to seek treatment elsewhere, such as at hospitals that might not have the capacity to accommodate them.

Legislators meant to partially shield Medicare from the automatic budget cuts triggered by the sequester, limiting the program to a 2 percent reduction — a fraction of the cuts seen by other federal programs.  But oncologists say the cut is unexpectedly damaging for cancer patients because of the way those treatments are covered.

Medications for seniors are usually covered under the optional Medicare Part D, which includes private insurance. But because cancer drugs must be administered by a physician, they are among a handful of pharmaceuticals paid for by Part B, which covers doctor visits and is subject to the sequester cut.

While some patients may be able to receive these treatments in a different health care setting, for some the interruption in care could adversely affect their health.

In addition, under sequestration, funding for cancer and other medical research supported by the National Institutes of Health would be cut by an estimated $1.5 billion (5.1 percent), including more than a $250 million reduction in cancer research funding, in FY 2013.  And, additional major cuts in cancer research funding are just around the corner in FY 2014, if the Budget Sequestration is not repealed.

If these cuts go into effect, a myriad of opportunities in cancer research could potentially be lost under this uncertain future. Today’s progress in research and promising scientific opportunities require a sustained commitment in order for them to bear any fruit that will benefit cancer patients in the future.

By some estimates, a $2.5 billion cut to the NIH could lead to 2,300 fewer research grants being funded next year and would have a devastating impact on the cancer research enterprise.

It is estimated that this cut could lead to 33,000 fewer jobs across the country and a $4.5 billion decrease in economic activity.

As the Congress begins to consider how best to react to the impact of sequestration, let your representative know that medical research is an area that deserves at least the same consideration as airline travel.  When it comes to research, turning off the funding can mean the difference between life and death for some patients.

Blair Horner is the Vice President for Advocacy for the American Cancer Society, Eastern Division.  His commentary does not necessarily reflect the views of the American Cancer Society.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.