Fund the CURE: It deserves support from Pa. tobacco fund dollars

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If one dollar could contribute to developing a way to detect Alzheimer's disease in a living patient, would you spend it? If another dollar could help pay for vaccine research focused on diseases like the flu or West Nile virus, would you spend it?

And if such a dollar -- which, by the way, didn't come from taxpayers' pockets -- could attract almost three more dollars in federal funds, wouldn't that make the equation a no-brainer?

Gov. Tom Corbett's budget plan got the answer wrong. Since 2001, Pennsylvania has used its share of the multistate tobacco settlement fund -- the result of a deal that forced the industry to bear some responsibility for health problems caused by its products -- to pay for home and community-based care, tobacco use prevention, prescription drug coverage for senior citizens and other health programs. Twenty percent of the state's share has gone to 39 institutions, including the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, specifically for biomedical research.

Now the Corbett administration wants to redirect that portion -- an estimated $60 million statewide in the coming budget year -- to help pay for long-term care programs instead. While that care should have a high priority, the state should not cut off the Commonwealth Universal Research Enhancement fund to pay for it. Pitting one program that aims to improve the health of Pennsylvanians against another is counterproductive, and eliminating the CURE funding will have long-lasting, detrimental impact.

This is not the first time the allocation of tobacco settlement money has been altered to meet the state's short-term needs, but this time the pipeline for research dollars from the tobacco fund would be completely shut off.

For Pitt's medical school, it would mean the loss of $13.5 million next year, money it has used in the past to attract talented researchers, build the lab space they require and take life-saving theories from the idea stage all the way to human drug trials.

The fund has provided $148 million to the medical school in the last 11 years, a sum that has generated another $385 million in federal funds, which in turn led to the creation of 5,000 jobs with an average salary of $67,000. The money has allowed the medical school to attract top-level researchers by paying for laboratories, equipment and workers to perform the research. Across the state, the allocation totaled more than $700 million since 2001.

Investing in research, laboratories, equipment and innovation doesn't bring an immediate payoff, but Pitt and other research centers have been careful stewards of the funds allocated through CURE, and it is starting to pay dividends. It would be shortsighted to pull the plug now.


First Published May 14, 2012 12:00 AM


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