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Over the past several weeks, the term “fiscal cliff” has become a household term. It seems as if you can’t turn on the evening news, pick up a newspaper, or check your Twitter newsfeed without hearing about it.  The political landscape changes daily, no hourly, about compromises and standoffs.  As the Policy and Advocacy Associate at the Prevent Cancer Foundation, I can honestly say that I understand your pain, America. Over the past few months I have sat through countless coalition meetings and policy briefings concerning the fiscal cliff and I have more questions than I have answers. I do not know what impact the fiscal cliff will have on the economy or on the job market, but I CAN tell you how it pertains to your health.

Making Sense of the Fiscal Cliff

Last month Lisa Hughes defined the fiscal cliff in a Prevent Cancer Foundation blog post, describing the economic effects that could “result in tax increases, spending cuts and a corresponding reduction in the budget deficit at the end of 2012.” In order to achieve their goal of decreasing the deficit by almost 50%, Congress has to dramatically reduce its spending, an act easier said than done. Last year Congress passed a Budget Control Act which saved the government from defaulting by putting in place a series of laws which would guarantee a reduction in the deficit through sequestration by the end of 2012. In 2011, almost 80% of the spending budget could be classified as one of four types of spending: discretionary, Defense Department, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. Of these categories, only discretionary (18%) and Defense Department (19%) spending could legally be subjected to cuts.

When presented with these options, it might seem that slashing the Capitoldiscretionary budget is a suitable option, given that it is not defined by existing legislation and must be set annually by Congress. What you may not realize, however, is that discretionary spending encompasses all the government departments, agencies and programs that affect our daily lives. Over the next 10 years, Congress plans on cutting $110 billion from discretionary spending; this amount will be evenly split between non-defense and defense discretionary spending, despite defense spending’s budget being much larger.

How will the Fiscal Cliff Affect Healthcare?

Allow me to explain exactly why you should care that by 2022, non-defense discretionary spending will have shrunk to its lowest amount since 1962. The agencies that derive funding solely from non-defense discretionary spending also happen to be the agencies that are almost entirely responsible for the longer, healthier lifespans that we as Americans enjoy today. The National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all rely on funding from the non-defense discretionary budget. If Congress follows through with its planned cuts, Americans will lose out on $55 billion worth of research, educational programs and direct health services over the next decade. Researchers will not receive grants and future medical breakthroughs responsible for drastically reducing mortality from diseases like cancer will be in jeopardy. In the past decade alone, we have seen the introduction of therapies and vaccines which reduced incidence and mortality rates for countless diseases like breast, cervical and colorectal cancers. Without funding, we cannot hope to see the same kind of success in diseases like pancreatic cancer that has a steadily rising mortality rate.

Don’t Let Congress Compromise Your Health!

Additionally, if medical research is allowed to stagnate, our nation’s economic health may decline. More Americans than ever will be missing work to spend time in doctor’s offices and hospitals, and those who will be diagnosed with chronic diseases might even lose their jobs, along with any possibility of covering their health expenses themselves. The negative impact these cuts will have on the economy could be tremendous. The grants provided through this funding go far in spurring economic activity, beginning with the salaries of medical researchers who could go on to create pharmaceuticals which could generate millions in revenue.

By allowing our leading medical research organizations to be under-funded, we are putting the health of ourselves and our loved ones at risk. It is not too late to keep this from happening. We are asking you to get involved in the fight for your health. Reach out to your Senator and member of Congress and tell them that you do not support cuts to non-discretionary defense spending and ask your friends and family to do the same.