Q&A with Kim Beer, Director of Public Policy, Susan G. Komen®
What, in your view, are the major challenges facing our nation’s research enterprise?
Biomedical research is the driving force behind decades of advances that have improved the health of people in every corner of America—including the lives of those affected by breast cancer. With a robust and sustained investment in biomedical research, the possibilities would be endless.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and its National Cancer Institute (NCI) have played a role in every major cancer prevention, detection and treatment advance in breast cancer for decades. Within the NIH, the NCI is the principal agency for cancer research and training. The NCI has funded numerous major breast cancer studies, including the recent progress in understanding BRCA gene mutations, trials involving combination chemotherapy, and studies that explore the differences between types of breast cancer.
Unfortunately, despite widespread, bipartisan support among lawmakers, the NIH’s budget has been on a roller coaster for the past several years. Federal austerity measures mandated by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 led to significant reductions for the NIH and NCI. When accounting for inflation, overall NIH funding has declined 22 percent from FY 2003 to FY 2015. NCI funding has been relatively flat, averaging about $4.9 million each year. These flat levels have occurred despite the fact that an estimated 1.7 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer this year, including nearly 250,000 breast cancer diagnoses.
The challenge for NIH in coming years is the remaining austere, non-defense discretionary spending caps mandated by the BCA that make it difficult to appropriate more funds for NIH without making significant and painful reductions in other programs. It will be challenging for any significant increases for NIH as long as the BCA’s spending caps remain in place.
Looking ahead to the future, what are your most significant policy/advocacy goals?
Susan G. Komen recognizes that, in order to achieve its mission, scientific progress must be complemented by sound public policy. Through government action, broad, systemic, lasting change can be made in the fight against breast cancer. This means that Komen—as a patient advocacy organization with firsthand knowledge of how breast cancer touches local communities—must engage policymakers and government as partners in our efforts to end breast cancer forever.
Each year, Komen works to identify, through a broad-based, intensive vetting and selection process, the advocacy issues that have the greatest potential impact on Komen’s mission and new Bold Goal of reducing the current number of breast cancer deaths in the U.S. by 50 percent in the next decade. Our current advocacy efforts focus on:
- Supporting expanded federal funding for all biomedical research, especially breast cancer research at the NIH and the Department of Defense (DOD);
- Supporting state and federal funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP);
- Advocating for policies to improve insurance coverage of breast cancer treatments and screening, specifically pertaining to increased access to drug therapies and limiting out-of-pocket costs for diagnostic mammography;
- Advocating for state and federal policies to increase awareness, education and access to clinical trials for all patient populations.
What do you want our readers to know about your work, particularly as it relates to research and innovation, and public health?
Research has been a priority for our organization since opening our doors in 1982. Beginning with our first grant for $28,000, we have now grown to be the largest nonprofit funder of breast cancer research outside of the U.S. government, with more than $920 million invested to date. Our research spans everything from prevention and environmental factors to precision medicine, metastatic breast cancer, and complementary medicine.
We also continue to support all levels of breast cancer researchers, from established investigators and leaders in the field to young scientists and clinicians who will serve as the next generation of leaders. And our research dollars help support not only scientific research and clinical trials, but also research partnerships and collaborations, scientific conferences and research education.
A continued investment in breakthrough breast cancer research is a key tenet of our new Bold Goal to reduce the current number of breast cancer deaths by 50 percent in the U.S. in the next decade. By focusing on understanding and finding more-effective treatments for metastatic disease and aggressive forms of breast cancer (such as Luminal B, triple negative and inflammatory breast cancers), and leveraging new technology to detect breast cancer at the very earliest stage, before it has spread or returned, we will save lives.
What initiatives or campaigns are you pursuing currently to boost federal funding for biomedical and health research?
Supporting expanded federal funding for all biomedical research has been a priority for Komen for many years, and remains one of our 2016 advocacy priorities.
What are some of your advocacy strategies relevant to advancing research and public health? What have been some of your successes, and what are some of the challenges?
Komen’s biggest strength is our grassroots network across the United States, including 100 affiliates and over 400,000 online advocates. We engage these groups throughout the year to advocate for our advocacy priorities and make the issues relevant in local communities for elected officials.
We also see the value in engaging in coalitions and issue-wide efforts, including our membership in Research!America and One Voice Against Cancer (OVAC), as well as participation in the annual Rally for Medical Research.
Through these efforts, in FY16 we were able to secure a $2 billion increase for the NIH and sustain research funding for the Congressionally Directed Medical Research Programs (CDMRP) at the DOD.
How do federal policies/funding and other public and private investments in medical and health research help achieve your goals?
While Komen is proud to be the largest nonprofit funder of breast cancer research outside of the federal government, it is still a drop in the bucket compared to what a renewed investment in federal funding could accomplish in eliminating this disease. Research funding provided by the NIH is the main source for basic science research, with half of their budget going toward this work. Without that scientific base, we would not have the ability to create improved screening modalities for better breast cancer detection, nor new treatments, and ultimately cures for this disease. Without increased public and private investment in biomedical research, there is slim hope for timely treatments or cures, especially for those women and men facing metastatic disease and other aggressive forms of breast cancer who need the cures today.