AHA volunteer Meliah Bowers Jefferson

AHA volunteer Meliah Bowers Jefferson at a reception Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

American Heart Association volunteers will visit Capitol Hill on Thursday to ask Congress to increase funding for the National Institutes of Health.

AHA will join nearly 300 other national organizations to visit the offices of U.S. House and Senate members for Rally for Medical Research “Hill Day.”

The research funding budget for the NIH, the nation’s largest underwriter of biomedical research, doubled between 1998 and 2003 — from $13.7 billion to $27.1 billion. Funding then fell over the next decade after adjusting for inflation, according to a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Then in March 2013, federal budget cuts slashed support for the NIH by nearly $1.6 billion – 5 percent of the agency’s total budget.

Although the $30 billion budget for the 2015 fiscal year saw a slight increase over the previous year, it remains more than $400 million short of pre-sequester levels. The shortfall has the potential to jeopardize medical research, jobs and the U.S. economy overall.

In July, the House passed a bill called the 21st Century Cures Act that would increase funding for the NIH. The bill is now being considered by the Senate.

Advocating for increased NIH funding is personal for AHA volunteer Meliah Bowers Jefferson, who in 2013 had a heart attack at age 33. The experience, she said, spurred her to become more proactive in making decisions about her own health care and more knowledgeable about heart disease.

“There were never any indications from my doctors that I was in anything but good health,” Bowers Jefferson said at a reception Wednesday. “Then, one day, I had a heart attack. I want to know why. There is a researcher out there who could give me an answer with a breakthrough that could save lives.”

U.S. death rates from heart disease have fallen more than 60 percent in the past 50 years. Up to two-thirds of this reduction can be traced to research funded by the NIH that resulted in better treatments, medications and improved health‐related behaviors.

“The decisions that our legislators make about the NIH will have a tremendous impact on the lives of all our nation’s citizens beyond public health – healthy citizens contribute to a healthy economy,” Bowers Jefferson said.

NIH currently invests 4 percent of its budget on heart disease research and 1 percent on stroke research.

Photo by Clare Rizer