The Folly of Defunding Diabetes Research

(reprinted from The Wall Street Journal)

While most people know me as owner of the New York Jets, my passion has long been in a different field: finding a cure for diabetes, one of America’s most devastating diseases.

Researchers are on the verge of achieving once-unthinkable goals in the battle against diabetes that will improve the physical health of the American people and provide enormous savings in health-care spending. This isn’t the time to slow down or give up the fight.

For the past 16 years, the Special Diabetes Program has been the foundation of the federal government’s effort to combat diabetes. As a businessman, I know when I see a program that works, and the $150 million in annual funding provided by SDP has led to significant discoveries into what causes Type 1 diabetes and how to better treat the disease. Researchers can now imagine what has seemed impossible — a cure.

Unfortunately, all of this is in jeopardy if Congress doesnn’t approve long-term funding of the SDP before 2013. Because we are facing a difficult economic climate, politicians on both sides of the aisle have been hesitant to make long-term budgetary investments. But without this guaranteed funding, important multiyear research will be dragged out or discontinued as researchers move on to other projects.

The benefits of future diabetes breakthroughs will be felt throughout our entire society. Nearly 26 million Americans suffer from diabetes. Between 14 million and 22 million more suffer from autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis, whose treatments and cures may be helped by diabetes research. Diabetes is also the leading cause of kidney failure and a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

Small wonder, then, that the financial costs of the disease are so staggering. Directly and indirectly, the U.S. spent $174 billion on diabetes in 2007, a figure that could triple in the next 25 years. One of every $10 spent on health care in this country goes to treat diabetes and its complications. More than a quarter of Medicare recipients have diabetes, and these 11 million Americans account for almost one-third of Medicare spending.

This is a problem that will get worse if we don’t do everything possible to prevent it. According to a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, the prevalence of Type 1 diabetes among Americans under age 20 rose by a staggering 23% between 2001 and 2009.

It doesn’t take a mathematician to see how enormous the savings to public and private health-care systems will be if we halt the spread of this costly disease. New studies indicate that the savings will be in the tens of billions of dollars.

I know personally how important it is to fund promising research and development. In 1988, my daughter Casey was diagnosed with diabetes. It is a diagnosis that the parents of 15,000 American children hear every yearr– one that touches off a long, complex and unrelenting journey that consumes every moment of their lives.

Casey required multiple injections every day to regulate her blood-sugar levels. Inflicting pain on your child instills dread in parents, and I hated the injections as much as she did. I spent hours late at night with an apple in one hand and a syringe in the other learning how to pierce the skin gently while still delivering the lifesaving medication my daughter needed. Casey died in 2010 as a result of complications from diabetes. She was 30 years old.

We have the opportunity to spare untold millions of Americans the trauma of this disease. Congress must make this long-term commitment to combating — and potentially defeating — diabetes.

Even at a time of national economic difficulty, the choice seems obvious. The Special Diabetes Program works. Congress must ensure it continues.

Mr. Johnson, a philanthropist and businessman, is the owner of the NFL’s New York Jets.