Spending Bill Serves Up Gains and Losses for Public Health, Says American Heart Association

May 04, 2017 Categories: Advocacy News

Washington, D.C., May 4, 2017 – With more support secured for federal research, the American Heart Association today applauded the 2017 omnibus spending bill, approved by Congress, but cautioned that cuts to programs and initiatives that support prevention will ultimately be a huge loss for public health.

The legislation, which funds the federal government through September, increases the 2017 budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by $2 billion. But it delays the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) draft guidance on decreasing sodium levels in food products and slashes federal heart and stroke prevention programs, which promote behavior changes that can help Americans avoid cardiovascular disease (CVD).

“In the next two decades, the cost of CVD will outpace all other diseases and inflict a crushing financial burden on our nation,” said American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown. “More federal funding for NIH research and prevention programs are our best hope of prevailing over this serious health and economic crisis.”

The association is elated that bipartisan support for research has enabled the NIH to receive a $2 billion budget boost for the second year in a row. Yet, it’s troubling that federal research funding levels for heart and stroke research are not still commensurate with the number of Americans who suffer from the burden of CVD. Heart disease and stroke account for 23 percent and 4 percent of all deaths, respectively, but the NIH currently invests a mere 4 percent of its budget on heart disease research and 1 percent on stroke research.

“With the death rate from heart disease now on the rise for the first time since the late 1960s, we cannot afford to let down our guard,” said Brown. “An increased focus on CVD research is absolutely crucial to reversing this trend and protecting future generations from falling victim to our nation’s no. 1 killer.”

The budget gain for the NIH was unfortunately offset by cuts or no increases to federal prevention programs that help Americans ward off risk factors that can put them on the path to heart attacks and strokes, including:

  • $30 million decrease to the current funding level of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s heart and stroke prevention program;
  • $4 million for Million Hearts, the same funding level as last year. This public-private partnership was designed to prevent one million heart attacks and strokes by 2022; and
  • $21 million, the same amount as 2016, for WISEWOMAN, a program that helps uninsured and underinsured low-income women age 40-64 obtain preventive health services, referrals to local health care providers, lifestyle programs and health counseling services tailored to identified risk factors to promote lasting, healthy behavior change.

“Prevention initiatives like these foster a culture of health in this country, and they should be given more federal support instead of simply maintaining the status quo or cutting funding,” said Brown.

Language in this legislation also effectively delayed other prevention strategies, especially when it comes to reducing the amount of sodium in the diets of Americans. This bill freezes sodium reductions for school meals at the first target that went into effect in the 2014-15 school year and lowered sodium by 5 to 10 percent. Prior to this reduction, school lunches alone contained an average of more than 1400 mgs. Target two, originally slated to go into effect in the 2017 school year, would decrease sodium by 15 to 30 percent. Target three, scheduled for the 2022 school year, would reduce sodium by 25 to 50 percent and bring school meals in line with the recommended daily level of 2300 mgs. Both targets have been put on hold indefinitely. In addition, the bill prohibits the use of U.S. Department of Agriculture funding for staff to help schools proceed with targets two or three. Bringing school meals down to moderate, healthy levels of sodium is important when kids are forming taste preferences and eating habits. The association believes it’s critical to move forward with all three targets because children who eat high levels of sodium are about 35 percent more likely to have elevated blood pressure than children who eat less.

The approved bill also ties the FDA’s 2016 voluntary targets to reduce sodium for all food products to an update of Dietary Reference Intake (DRI). DRI is the general term for a set of reference values used by the federal government to plan and assess nutrient intakes of healthy people, and an update of these values is not likely to be completed for a couple of years. The association supports an updated DRI, but views this provision as nothing more than a delay tactic. While the FDA can continue to work on the targets, this lengthy postponement could potentially blunt the momentum behind the voluntary sodium reductions enough to effectively kill them.

Finally, the association is disappointed at the decision to fund the Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) grant program at only $400 million. This critical physical education program, among other initiatives, was authorized by the “Every Student Succeeds Act” at $1.65 billion and is a vital component of a healthy, well-rounded education for children. Less support for the program undermines the ability of schools to fully fund their physical education activities. 

“The NIH support included in this bill is to be commended and will return the investment many times over. But moving forward, we ask Congress to keep in mind that we need the dual weapons of research and prevention to wipe out the burden of CVD for every generation,” said Brown.

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Contact: Retha Sherrod (202) 785-7929 retha.sherrod@heart.org