Medical research dollars and help not flowing during shutdown

10/02/2013 7:18 PM

10/03/2013 3:18 AM

Dr. Steven Lipshultz will do his part against childhood disease this week without any new help from the federal government.

The University of Miami pediatric cardiologist spent Wednesday in Baltimore for a National Institutes of Health conference on childhood HIV and AIDS. One problem: NIH doctors and researchers were banned from attending, thanks to a partial government shutdown that includes a large chunk of the federal government dedicated to medical research.

“This meeting only happens twice a year,’’ said Lipshultz, who researches heart problems tied to childhood diseases. “We’re looking at data from all over the country. And there is no one from the government there.”

The NIH no-show came as medical research became the latest flashpoint in the shutdown debate, following reports that there won’t be the money to allow a small number of childhood cancer patients to enter certain NIH clinical trials. House Republicans, which have blocked fully funding the government this week, on Wednesday offered a bill that would free up dollars for the NIH. Democrats balked, saying the entire government needs to be funded in order resolve the impasse.

President Barack Obama brought top lawmakers to the White House on Wednesday as Republicans rejected Democratic demands to vote on legislation ending a two-day partial government shutdown without changes to the nation’s three-year-old health care law.

Despite the meeting, White House press secretary Jay Carney said sharply that Obama “will not offer concessions to Republicans in exchange for not tanking the economy.”

House Republicans brought a handful of bills to the floor to reopen portions of the government. Along with NIH, the bill would resume funding for veterans’ programs and parks. Democrats labeled that a piecemeal approach and rejected it, and the White House threatened to veto the measures in the unlikely event they made it to Obama’s desk.

“What we’re trying to do is to get the government open as quickly as possible,” said the House majority leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia. “And all that it would take is us realizing we have a lot in agreement.”

Democrats were scathing.

“The American people would get better government out of Monkey Island at the local zoo than we’re giving them today,” said Rep. John Dingell of Michigan.

Without the funding bill, the government on Tuesday began shutting down agencies and services that need Congressional approval to spend money in the budget year that began October 1. Many arms of the government continue to function, including the issuance of Social Security checks and the air-traffic-control system. But parks have closed, some 800,000 federal workers were furloughed without pay, and federal aid would soon run dry for a host of needs, including food for infants in poverty and major highway construction projects.

The shutdown should not interfere with current research projects and trials funded by the NIH, which last year sent about $118 million to UM, making it the No. 1 recipient in Florida, according to a university release. No new awards are being made, but that only means a possible delay in a grant-making process that can take months anyway, academic officials said.

In a statement, UM’s vice provost for research, John Bixby, called a temporary shutdown an “inconvenience” but said a prolonged impasse could bring “much larger effects” for the school’s medical research.

For South Florida doctors, the NIH shutdown could mean less up-to-date information on medical research. An NIH website, pubmed.gov, that compiles medical studies from the around the world is “now being maintained with minimal staffing due to the lapse in funding,’’ according to a notice on the site. The site is a popular stop for doctors dealing with unusual cases, said Dr. Robert Roskoski, of the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research in Horse Shoe, N.C.

“The results for clinical trials come out all the time,’’ Roskoski said. If a patient has symptoms that “you don’t deal with every day in your clinical practice, you want the latest research.”

Lipshultz said even a brief delay in updating the NIH’s research site can have serious consequences.

“God forbid I have a child come in to Jackson with a very rare set of findings that I can’t necessarily figure out,’’ he said. “I’ll put in the findings, and the diagnosis, and up will come on pubmed all the findings from around the world. It helps guide how I’m going to treat that child and save that child’s life. Immediately.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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