Md.-based federal agencies get spending data for year

Increases for FDA, NIH, SSA mean losing less ground, fall short of need, officials say

February 17, 2007|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- This year's spending plan for the Food and Drug Administration, National Institutes of Health and Social Security Administration, crafted by the new Democratic majority in Congress and signed into law this week by President Bush, provides a mix of good and bad news for the Maryland-based agencies, according to congressional aides and other government officials.

The National Institutes of Health, which funds much of the country's medical research, including hundreds of millions of dollars each year to Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland, received $28.9 billion, a $620 million increase over last year.

The NIH will steer $91 million of this new money to newer scientists and $40 million into high-risk research. Overall, the NIH will support 970 more research projects than last year.

The overall increase is not enough to reverse several years of eroding budgets or to keep up with inflation, but interest groups say it is more than they expected.

"We're very appreciative," said Nancy L. Granese, who runs the Campaign for Medical Research, a coalition of businesses, universities and patient groups.

Granese said interest groups would urge Congress to make up the NIH's losses in real spending power since 2004 in the coming years: "We're going to be advocating a three- to five-year back-on-track effort."

Spending for the Social Security Administration increases by nearly $200 million, to $9.3 billion. That means the agency will avoid furloughs of employees, which had been feared. But union official Witold Skwierczynski, president of the National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, said the agency still does not have enough workers to do all of its work, such as issuing replacement Social Security cards or reducing wasteful spending by tracking down those who get disability payments even though they are no longer disabled.

This year, Social Security must freeze hiring and cut overtime spending in half, according to a Senate Democratic aide. Also, the agency's backlog for review of claims and appeals is likely to grow, said the aide, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We've put a Band-Aid on Social Security's funding problems for this year," said Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. "But even with that bandage, huge problems remain. Applicants for disability benefits are already waiting as long as 3 1/2 years to receive them."

According to Social Security, the wait time for approval of initial claims is 85 days and for appeals is 496 days.

The Food and Drug Administration's spending will keep up with inflation, with its budget rising $91 million to nearly $2 billion, said a House Democratic aide.

The FDA's spending has not kept pace with inflation in previous years, and officials are pleased that the agency won't lose more ground, said William K. Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner who is advising the Coalition for a Stronger FDA, a group of industry, medical and patient organizations seeking more funding for the agency.

To cut costs, the FDA is threatening to close up to nine of its 13 labs around the country that test the safety of foods, medical equipment, cosmetics and other products, according to senators and union officials who are fighting it.

"It would mean an inability of the FDA to act quickly in a time of crisis, whether a food-borne illness or some other issue," said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 600 lab workers.

jonathan.rockoff@baltsun.com

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