Florida legislators this year diverted state money from medical research studies in order to give $30 million to cancer centers, no-strings-attached, says an architect of the state research program.
The grant program was intended to fund medical studies that receive high scores in a competitive review. Instead, for the past four years legislators have given increasing amounts of the money to cancer centers for general expenses, says state Rep. Mike Fasano, who helped design the program in 2009.
“You’re taking money away from proven research projects that help real people,” said Fasano, R-New Port Richey. “I’m not saying those who got the money don’t do a great job. They do. But they should have to compete and prove their projects like everyone else.
“You shouldn’t have legislators giving money to their favorite cancer center just because they hire a good lobbyist,” he said. “The Legislature has injected politics into medical research.”
Fasano made his comments after learning that the Florida Department of Health may not fund the final two years of five-year grants given to 21 studies involving thousands of patients, as Health News Florida reported last week.
The projects were recommended by the state Biomedical Research Advisory Council – a panel of university and research experts – and had scored highest in rankings by independent reviewers. The money came from two state research programs that receive tobacco taxes, one called Bankhead-Coley and another named for James and Esther King.
The state has told the researchers they can reapply to receive the remaining $10 million of their grants in September, but there’s no guarantee how many will win funding. If they lose the state money, they also lose any private or federal matching funds.
Researchers say that if they lose state funding, they would have to halt studies in midstream and discharge their patients. That means they would have nothing to show for the work and money already spent, they said.
Among the 21 studies: Testing a gene therapy on lung cancer patients, investigating why breast and colon cancers are more aggressive in minority populations, testing a therapy to repair brain cells in stroke patients, and testing a treatment for the eye disease macular degeneration.
The Legislature this year slotted $20 million for competitive grants and $30 million for cancer centers. By comparison, in the program’s first year in 2009, all $47 million went to competitive grants.
About $7 million each went to H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center in Miami and Shands/University of Florida Cancer Center in Gainesville. Also, $5.6 million went to Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in Orlando and $3 million to Torrey-Pines Institute for Molecular Studies in Port St. Lucie. The latter two are affiliates of large California research centers.
A Moffitt spokesman defended the cancer center grants, saying the only federally-designated cancer center uses the money to support its own research, including projects not funded by the state competitive grants. Moffitt reports to the state every year how the money was spent, said Jamie Wilson, vice president of government relations.
“There is accountability,” Wilson said. “Our projects are very high quality. Having the state make an investment in institutions that are doing cutting-edge research and treatment makes perfect sense.”
Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, oversees the grant program as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services. He said he prefers to fund competitive grants and balked at giving so much to cancer centers, but was persuaded to go along. He tried, unsuccessfully, to fund the Mayo Clinic cancer center in his district.
“To be a world class organization, you need a stream of money,” Bean said. “Once cancer centers can cover the overhead, then they can pursue grants [outside Florida]. We need to fund their base costs and then let them go from there. That was their argument and I can see that.”
This year, Gov. Rick Scott removed cancer center grants from his proposed budget to focus on competitive projects. But Bean said legislators opposed cutting off the funds cold-turkey. After a tussle over who would get how much, he said, top House and Senate leaders settled the issue by giving $7 million more than last year to both cancer centers and competitive grants.
Fasano said he was happy about the increased research funding but discouraged by the cancer centers’ political clout. He helped set up the grant program in 2009 after the state hiked cigarette taxes to finance medical research.
“We wanted to make certain that politics didn’t play a role in the grants. But that changed,” Fasano said. “Once you give the cancer centers that money through the political process and not [competitive] review, they can come back and say ‘you can’t take that away, you will hurt us.’ The money stays in there.”
The American Cancer Society and American Lung and Heart associations asked legislative leaders to phase out the cancer center funding to no avail, said James Mosteller, government relations director for the heart association.
“It’s been a big issue for us,” Mosteller said. “It’s a multi-million-dollar check that’s turned over to the cancer centers and can be used for anything. The best projects should get the money. It should be spent on doctors doing actual research for patients.”
--Bob LaMendola is a free-lance health reporter based in South Florida. Please send question or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.