Governor signs off on cancer research money

Tallahassee, FL – Governor Rick Scott recently signed a bill that would allocate 25-million dollars towards Biomedical and cancer research across the state. As Sascha Cordner reports, there are mixed emotions to the bill, after it cut the amount of funds available for biomedical and cancer research in half from 50-million dollars to 25-million.

Scott signed Republican Representative Matt Hudson's bill on Tuesday that dealt with biomedical and cancer research funding in the state of Florida.

"House Bill 5303 provides for 25-million dollars in funding for biomedical-cancer research programs to be provided at the James and Esther King facility, 5-million dollars, to Bankhead-Coley facility, 5-million dollars, H. Lee Moffitt, 5-million dollars, the Sylvester Cancer Center at the University of Miami, 5-million dollars, and the Shands Cancer Center at the University of Florida, 5-million dollars."

Originally the allocated money was supposed to be a total of 50-million dollars. But, Hudson's original bill eliminated ALL funds for biomedical and cancer research. Later, both the House and Senate agreed to distribute 25-million dollars among several of the research programs. The remainder of the 50-million, the other 25-million, would go towards other areas, including covering the deficit at the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. And, where did all this money come from?

House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders says a couple of years ago, the legislature passed a dollar per tax surcharge on cigarettes. That money was intended to fund specific areas of research for the diseases that product causes. But, now all that is going to change.

"My father died of cancer, so I'm a strong supporter of cancer research, and I was willing to vote on that increase, based upon the fact that we were told the money will go in statute to these places. But, this year, in addition to taking some of that money away, the bill actually changed the law. And now every year, the legislature can change where that money goes, and I didn't support that because I do feel the Moffitt Center and [these] other places are very important to cancer research and they should get the full funding they were promised."

Jamie Wilson is the Vice President of Government Relations for the Moffitt Cancer Center, whose funds were decreased from 10-million to 5. Despite the reduction, Wilson says he is grateful for the funds, which will benefit patients as well as have a positive economic impact on the state.

"This year for us to be awarded 5-million dollars out of that budget formula out of the 25, we're going to put that to good use, we're going to help patients directly with that, we're going to create jobs with that, we're going to find better ways to treat and cure patients with cancer here in Florida."

Wilson says he is pleased the Governor signed the bill, and it still sends the signal that Florida is still interested in biomedical research and trying to find cures for these diseases.

Bill Donelan is the Vice President for Medical Affairs at the University of Miami. He says the funds for UM's Sylvester Cancer Center are also a major "job creator" investment by the state.

"It's to enable the Sylvester Cancer Center to recruit faculty who are physician-scientists, who actually are researchers, and those would be recruitments from other institutions outside of Florida in all likelihood, and they would bring research expertise and research programs and employ research staff, who would carry out research in areas that we want to grow and develop."

Republican Representative Marti Coley of Marianna says though she applauds the Governor for signing the bill, she is disappointed the legislature repealed the funding language for the Bankhead-Coley Cancer Research Program AND the James and Esther King biomedical research, whose funds each decreased from 20-million to about five.

Coley, also an advocate for the Bankhead-Coley Cancer Research Program, split away from party lines, and was one of the few Republicans who voted against the proposal.

"The Coley is named after my husband who died of cancer in 2005, and experiencing that loss made me commit from the very beginning to fight for cancer research dollars, to fight for cancer research period."

Coley says Florida has one of the highest cancer rates in the nation, and the funds are a crucial part of developing treatments for the care of residents. But, Hudson, the bill's sponsor, says he's not sure it's a worthy investment.
He says what it came down to was making a choice between funding research programs OR taking care of what he calls the "single most vulnerable population in the state."

"I would rather take care of the developmentally disabled than to do research. If it were actual dollars that would be taking care of patients, it would be different, but these are research dollars and so I have felt frankly that it was more appropriate to spend it on direct care to the developmentally disabled than to spend it on research dollars."

But, House Democratic Leader Ron Saunders says the failure of the legislature to properly fund the Agency for Persons with Disabilities doesn't mean they should raid the Biomedical Research Trust Fund that goes to other good purposes.

"It shouldn't be a choice. I think the legislature has a duty to fund both. And, it shouldn't be either-or. It shouldn't mean well, if you don't raise this trust fund, and take money away from cancer research, we won't fund other things. The Legislature chose not to fund them, at least the Republican Legislature did, and so, I think that's a false choice and I think those are both priorities that should be funded."

Saunders says in raiding the fund that was specifically for research, the Florida legislature breached the public's trust and is one of the reasons why some Floridians don't trust lawmakers.