Cancer Clinics: Congress Should Have Restored Our Sequester Cuts Before Addressing Airport Delays

This past week, Congress approved a measure to restore funding to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) after sequester cuts to the national transportation agency disrupted airline travel across the country — but they haven’t taken similar steps to provide relief for other programs that are struggling as a result of sequestration. Now, employees at cancer clinics aresharply criticizing that move, pointing out that lawmakers should have prioritized their funding before working to alleviate airport delays.

After automatic budget cuts slashed their funding, cancer clinics have been forced todelay chemotherapy treatment for their patients. Some clinics may actually have to close their doors altogether if the sequester cuts are not reversed. As several cancer doctors told the Hill, they suspect they may not have been at the top at Congress’ list because reduced access to chemotherapy doesn’t personally inconvenience lawmakers in the same way that airport delays do:

“I would invite anyone in Washington to come look my patients in the eye and tell them that waiting for a flight is a bigger problem than traveling farther and waiting longer for chemotherapy,” said William Nibley, a doctor at Utah Cancer Specialists in Salt Lake City. [...]

“Unfortunately, this doesn’t (hit) home directly to members, as traveling does,” said Ted Okon, executive director of the Community Oncology Alliance, which is aggressively lobbying Congress to soften the cuts to cancer clinics.

Okon said he has sympathy for the FAA employees who were furloughed — the FAA is one of a slew of federal agencies that docked employees’ hours and pay as a result of the sequester. He does not begrudge furloughed FAA workers their fix, but he said Congress needs to move quickly on cancer care, too.

Earlier this month, Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) proposed restoring some funding for cancer clinics after realizing the “unintended consequences” of sequestration. Unlike the measure to address airport delays, Ellmers’ legislation has not yet seen any movement in Congress. She told the Hill that she hopes it will soon be “expedited in the same way that the FAA bill was this week.”

Ellmers isn’t the only Republican who is beginning to acknowledge the potentially disastrous effects of sequestration, and the other funding priorities that should likely take precedent over air travel. On Meet the Press this morning, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) suggested that Congress has “our priorities a little bit skewed here.”

“With all due respect to my friends, it’s a little bit hypocritical that, on the same day when all of the focus was on the delays we have in getting through airports, the chief of staff of the U.S. army was saying that if we don’t reverse this we will be unable to defend the nation and it will take us 10 to 15 years to recover,” McCain said. “Look, I’m for giving the FAA flexibility, but I also want to give the military flexibility and I don’t want the sequestration cuts to be as deep as they are in our national defense.”

In his most recent weekly address, President Obama also suggested that the swift action on the FAA’s funding was largely due to the fact that lawmakers were directly impacted by airport delays, even though there are more pressing budget priorities at hand following the automatic sequester cuts. “I hope Members of Congress will find the same sense of urgency and bipartisan cooperation to help the families still in the crosshairs of these cuts,” Obama said. “They may not feel the pain felt by kids kicked off Head Start, or the 750,000 Americans projected to lose their jobs because of these cuts, or the long-term unemployed who will be further hurt by them. But that pain is real.”

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