Sen. Casey pushes for restored medical research funding

A day after Philipsburg’s Emily Whitehead stopped by his office last week, Sen. Bob Casey again urged leaders and President Barack Obama to consider the effects that cuts to medical research have on biomedical research and the jobs that it provides.

According to Casey, D-Pa., the funding from the National Institutes of Health not only helped advance medical treatments like that given to Emily, it also supported almost 2,500 Pennsylvania jobs in 2012.

Emily recently celebrated one year of being cancer-free after a recurring battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, the most common form of pediatric cancer.

After traditional treatment options failed, Emily became the first child to have her own T cells — infection-fighting white blood cells in her immune system — genetically engineered by researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania to recognize and attack the cancer cells in her body.

In an interview Tuesday with the Centre Daily Times, Casey reiterated the importance of the funding to the state’s economy and health care advances.

“We’re trying to make the point — and this is bipartisan — that ... even in a time of tight budgets, even in a time of sequestration, we have to find ways to make sure we don’t lose our edge on the advantage we have as a nation on medical research,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re losing part of that edge, not all of it, but part of it, and we know the value of it ... not just the potential, but the lifesaving reality of medical research.”

In 2012, Pennsylvania ranked fourth in the nation for the number of NIH grants handed out, which equated to more than $1.4 billion in research funding.

“We have a great medical research infrastructure in Pennsylvania,” Casey said. “That’s why we get more dollars than only a few other states, and this isn’t some gift that was bestowed upon Pennsylvania, these are competitive grants.”

Penn State is part of the infrastructure. The 5th Congressional District, which encompasses Penn State’s University Park campus, received more than $57 million. The Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center is located in the 17th Congressional District, which received more than $56 million.

Casey emphasized that if funding isn’t restored, many researchers may begin to look elsewhere.

“I hear ... it seems like it’s every week — examples of how researchers are because of … either uncertainty or additional cuts, one or the other, they’re leaving, they’re going to Europe or other parts of the world because they feel like they’ll have more success there,” he said. “We need to make sure that we continue that investment.”

Tom Whitehead, Emily’s father, said that the family also discussed graduate medical education — funding for hospitals to support residency training programs — and Medicaid with Casey while in Washington, D.C.

The House of Representatives passed the Children’s Hospital GME Support Reauthorization Act on Feb. 4. The legislation is now sitting in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, of which Casey is a member.

“It’s currently important because in a state like Pennsylvania, we have just two or three institutions, two being children’s hospitals, that benefit tremendously when the federal government makes an investment, I would say it’s an appropriate investment, in graduate medical education so you have enough talent and expertise in our health care system for those who would provide care for children,” Casey said.

On the subject of expanding Medicaid health coverage in Pennsylvania under the Affordable Care Act, which is expected to be voted on by the state General Assembly this week, Casey urged Gov. Tom Corbett and GOP leaders to come to an agreement with the federal government.

“It’s very important for children who are poor, it’s very important that Pennsylvania gets the full benefit of the program for those who have disabilities, and finally … we want as strong a Medicaid program in Pennsylvania as possible as well for those getting long-term care,” he said.

State House GOP leaders on Tuesday gathered to publicly express questions and concerns about possible Medicaid expansion. The state Senate may vote on the issue this week in conjunction with budget discussions. But it could face plenty of opposition in the House.

“We’ve been very, very clear at welfare code budget meetings that expansion is off the table,” said House Health Committee Chairman Matt Baker, R-Tioga. “Given the dramatic concerns fiscally, we think it’s irresponsible at this point in time to move forward with the Medicaid expansion.”

Back in Washington, Tom Whitehead said that Casey was receptive to what the family had to say. When Casey went to leave, Whitehead said that the children on the trip simultaneously yelled “Thanks, Bob” to which “he said he wished everyone was that friendly to me.”

Casey agreed that the meeting went well.

“Sometimes those meetings are fairly brief, because you go on the steps, you say hello to people, you take a picture, and you’re off — you’re there for only a few minutes — but she and the girls with her will be one of the more impressive groups that we’ll have met.”

As for 8-year-old Emily, she’s “going places,” Casey said. “She’s got natural leadership skills that were plainly evident when I met her.”