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Op-Ed: Obama dodges lame-duck weakness through healthcare spending

While this kind of pessimism is always in fashion in modern politics, it misses the fact that on a variety of healthcare-related initiatives, bipartisan cooperation is already in the works.

In his 2016 budget proposal, Obama made some significant requests on behalf of scientific research, including an initiative aimed at winning the fight against cancer. The Precision Medicine Initiative, unveiled shortly after the State of the Union, is a costly, long-term new program that combines the latest genetic research, with an ongoing national program for linking up healthcare data, to finally produce a cure for cancer in its many deadly forms.

Nestled in this $215 million program was a $5 million allotment purposed for improving the interoperability and security of health data networks. This is not a challenge unique to the Precision Medicine Initiative—it is a critical aspect of an existing program, known as Meaningful Use, which is bringing Electronic Health Records (EHR) into hospitals and small health clinics across the country.

Meaningful Use has been controversial since it first became law, but the new Republican majority has shown no interest in axing the program. Rather, broad bipartisan efforts have aimed at massaging its implementation to ensure success.

This alone should quell concerns about whether Republican support for science is real or just lip-service. Bringing EHR platforms into care centers is expected to improve healthcare outcomes and reduce costs—again, popular bipartisan goals. Preserving the spirit of Meaningful Use by tweaking its application is a good sign that cooperation is both possible and probable.

The Precision Medicine Initiative builds on this very program, aimed at making personalized healthcare a standard model of future care-delivery, starting with gene-based cancer treatment. If the full value of Obama’s proposed research budget doesn’t make it, cuts are unlikely to come from the allocation for data security upgrades. Those are necessary with or without a new cure for cancer.

Domestic health policy and national security are connected in Obama’s outline of his priorities for the remainder of his office. On the national security front—an area rife with friction throughout Obama’s presidency—healthcare science is providing another platform for agreement.

Obama’s strategies on everything from counter-terrorism to Russian aggression in Ukraine have highlighted partisan divides on security issues. But when the 2014 Ebola outbreak reached its peak, bi-partisan agreement sent a combination of military and public health officials to contain the disease and keep the situation from escalating.

Although the World Health Organization continues to report hundreds of new cases each week, international efforts to contain the outbreak are now focused less on containment, and more on eradicating the disease in the worst-affected countries. The international response to Ebola has clearly prevented it from reaching the worst-case scenario peaks experts warned about.

Even so, the outbreak demonstrated that global public health is, in fact, a national security concern—Obama said as much in the State of the Union (just after acknowledging the need for greater cyber security infrastructure). His point was virtually made for him when an American measles outbreak was traced to Disneyland, sending strong signs that international tourism—alongside growing anti-vaccination trends—was responsible for kicking off the infection.

Both parties recognize that fighting fires is less effective than preventing such emergencies; for its faults, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at least demonstrate the principles (if not the results) of such an awareness.
Since international trade is unlikely to subside, security policy will have to account for the health risks that come along with a global economy. The response to the Ebola outbreak shows Congress is not totally paralyzed by ideological divides.

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