Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Do no harm


In the national debates about federal deficits, fearing any decision that could possibly be used against them, senators and members of Congress settled on sequestration—spending cuts made in huge chunks to whole sections of the federal budget without setting priorities or assessing consequences.

They took themselves off the accountability hook and allowed sequestration to take effect March 1. 

It would have helped if our senators and representatives had begun with the admonition that doctors follow: “First, do no harm.”

Sadly, because the White House has not exploded in a ball of fire, à la the movie “Independence Day,” the public and the media are taking little notice of the effects of sequestration cuts. But make no mistake: Sequestration is doing harm.

Harm is being done to individuals, communities and the environment as sequestration slows cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear facility in the state of Washington, with 250 workers released and another 2,500 facing furloughs.

Harm is being done because research into cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and influenza is losing crucial funding even as scientists say they are on the verge of treatment breakthroughs. Harm is being done to the future as the real possibility of diminished federal funding for medical and scientific research is making some scientists question whether they should even stay in the United States.

Promising graduate students are going to countries investing heavily in scientific research. According to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, “It is a harmful thing that we are doing both at a time of remarkable and almost unprecedented scientific opportunity, and we’re also at a time when we wish to know what things cost while ignoring what is possible.”

Sequestration was supposed to be so painful to every voting district that members of Congress would never let it happen and would find a real solution to long-term deficits. Sequestration proponents are more than happy to point out that no matter how much the left objects, massive budget cuts have so far produced none of the disasters predicted. So far.

Three weeks into sequestration, the proponents might be right. There has not been a major airplane crash, nor have we been poisoned by spoiled meat. No one has died because drugs were not safe.

Even so, instead of waiting for the worst, it would be preferable to find the best way rather than the cheapest way. Then there is a better possibility of really doing no harm over time as the effects of sequestration continue to unfold.

 




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