Former US Representative (D-TN) and DLC Chairman Harold Ford, Jr. stresses the crucial role of health care in the upcoming election

May 13th, 2008

Democratic Leaders Could Cure What Ails Us

By Harold Ford, Jr. and Al From
Commercial Appeal Online

By the time our next president takes the office, 50 million Americans will be living and working without health insurance.

By the time he or she seeks re-election, health care costs in the United States will reach $3 trillion — with medical costs rising twice as fast as workers' wages.

For those reasons, health care is at the center of the presidential debate this year. We believe America needs a universal health care plan, based on the principle of shared responsibility. Coverage should extend to all Americans, with business, patients and government sharing the cost.

So we're delighted that both Democratic candidates have offered constructive plans that follow that principle. And we're pleased that both have included interesting ideas for keeping costs down and increasing the efficiency of the system as a whole.

To be sure, health care is about coverage and costs, but it's also about people. Unless we find cures, American families will continue to be plagued by costly, debilitating and fatal diseases such as cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's.

We believe that a national effort to discover treatments and cures to eradicate the worst kinds of disease could dramatically improve the quality of health for all Americans, reduce the suffering of families, lower health care costs and lessen the burden that medical care places on our economy.

To achieve this goal, our next president should create an American Center for Cures (ACC) — a cabinet-level authority charged with fighting life-threatening disease.

By best estimates, 150 million Americans have been affected by a devastating illness. Despite the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars on medical research, and the remarkable progress that has been made on many fronts, there hasn't been a new drug developed for Parkinson's disease in 40 years. Children with diabetes now take three injections a day, instead of two. And nearly 600,000 Americans die of cancer every year.

The burden of treating these illnesses is a primary reason that medical costs are out of control. New cancer therapies can cost up to $10,000 a month — and we spend more than $72.1 billion treating the disease each year. The American Diabetes Association reports that medical expenses for that disease now top $116 billion. And caring for individuals with Alzheimer's is estimated to cost at least $100 billion annually, even as an additional American develops the disease every 72 seconds.

The American Center for Cures would be a public/private partnership that would function as an independent entity within the National Institutes of Health, targeting research resources from government, academia and the private sector on cure-driven projects. It would pay for high-risk, high-reward research, fund small businesses that have created possible cures but lack the money necessary to test drugs in clinical trials, and work to streamline the clinical trial process.

It would be led by a “director of cures” who would report to the president of the United States and would be overseen by a leadership council made up of researchers, physicians, federal agency heads and entrepreneurs. Most important, the ACC would take on the responsibility for finding cures for at least five different diseases within a decade. Even partial success would mean a dramatic change for thousands of Americans.

We admit the goals are ambitious, but the payoff would be enormous.

There is historical precedent. Half a century ago, polio was the scourge of every family and community in America. Its costs in death and paralysis were staggering. The iron lung — without which many polio victims could not breathe — became a symbol of terrible suffering.

In 1952, the polio epidemic reached its peak in the United States: 58,000 cases, 3,145 deaths and 21,269 more paralyzed for life. Americans who lived through that period will remember the annual campaigns of the March of Dimes that raised millions of dollars to find a cure. Three years later, Dr. Jonas Salk licensed a vaccine that effectively eradicated the disease in the United States.

The human and health care costs that were prevented by the Salk vaccine are almost impossible to measure.

Curing Parkinson's, diabetes, Alzheimer's or cancer should be a national priority of our health care system.

The American Center for Cures would not be a panacea for all our health care woes. But every illness that we cure or eradicate will reduce suffering, save American lives and cut the nation's health care bill by billions and billions of dollars. That, in turn, will make it far easier to ensure that everyone has access to health care. For that reason alone, the center should be a central element of the next president's health care agenda.

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