For years, some biomedical groups and health activists have pushed the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to devote more attention to the health of U.S. minorities. Last week, they got their wish: President Bill Clinton signed into law a measure that elevates NIH's office of minority health to the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities. The move comes with the promise of a bigger budget and greater autonomy to fund studies on why blacks, Hispanics, and other groups suffer disproportionately high rates of diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
NIH created the Office of Research on Minority Health (ORMH) as an administrative home for minority health activities in 1990, but put it on a short leash. As part of the director's office, ORMH must broker partnerships with other institutes to fund any studies. Some legislators felt that a center was needed to give health disparities studies the attention they deserved. After a previous attempt by Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) fell short, Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and Bill Frist (R-TN) prevailed in late October.
The new law gives the center the power to award grants for basic and clinical research independently of other institutes. It also dangles the promise of a doubled budget in 2 years. Although the bill authorizes $100 million--not much more than ORMH's current $87 million--"the intent is that it will be [$100 million] over and above the current budget," says a staffer for Kennedy. Another provision will forgive up to $35,000 a year in student loans for any researcher conducting studies of health disparities.
The changes will give the center "more impact, more influence, more power," says Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Fauci and NIH acting deputy director Yvonne Maddox are leading a working group examining health disparities research across the institutes. The group will help shape NIH's priorities for addressing health disparities in the 2002 budget.