Amid the high drama over a potential government shutdown, at least as politically explosive is Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which has been heralded by some as the most visionary fiscal set of ideas since President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 budget. The Reagan budget provided the economic and political path out of the stagflation nightmare of the seventies, and in its own way the Ryan budget steps up to our era’s most basic economic issues, as reflected in our health and retirement cost quagmire, which includes Medicare.
But at a time when we’re living 30 years longer than people did in the last century — when these health safety net programs were invented — even Ryan’s heroic approach to fiscal sustainability will not cut it. To truly “bend the cost curve,” we’ll have to begin to invest in research to keep people healthier and more actively engaged economically, not just revamp a program that treats the sick and disabled. It’s a fresh view of spending on health as an investment to find the cures and ultimately prevent the growing age-related epidemics of diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular illnesses and cancers.
The Ryan budget does raise the basic public policy question of government’s role. No one would doubt it’s the government’s place to support national defense, education policy, and basic infrastructure such as bridges and highways. But if the 21st century’s most profound socioeconomic reality is the demographics of an aging population, government should also invest in science that will lead to the cures and treatments for the illnesses that, left unattended, will become a fiscal nightmare.
This past Wednesday, Frances Collins, director of the NIH, joined Dr. Michael M. Weiner of the University of California and other prominent medical scientists at the 8th annual Alzheimer’s Association gala to make a precise plea for research spending on the diseases set to explode as the nation’s baby boomers age. Both of the generation where public protests helped influence government priorities, Collins and Weiner are now directing their passions to a new century’s demands on government. One hopes that it is just a matter of time before we see a changed approach to federal spending habits.
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