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As Congress works to make improvements to our health care system, we should make certain we continue to prioritize medical research and its ability to save lives tomorrow through today’s investments. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) plays a critical role nationwide in directing our medical research community.

I recently visited the NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Md., accompanied by NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, several directors of NIH Institutes, University of Kansas Chancellor Douglas Girod and members of the KU Alzheimer’s Disease Center, to see firsthand the work being done by some of our nation’s leading physicians and scientists. After touring NIH’s facilities and discussing research progress on neurodegenerative diseases — specifically, Alzheimer’s — it is clear, now more than ever, that sustained funding for the NIH is essential for the next generation of Americans and will help lower health care costs in the future.

As a co-founder of the Senate NIH Caucus and champion of NIH funding, I’ve made it a priority to make certain Congress prioritizes funding to assist our nation’s medical researchers in reaching groundbreaking discoveries, including new treatments and cures for diseases to make our health care system more effective while lowering overall health care costs.

Federal NIH dollars support 3,000 universities, medical schools and research facilities across the country, which are developing cutting-edge treatments that will serve as a catalyst for more affordable care in the future. The importance of NIH funding is real: the medical breakthroughs yielded from NIH research will ensure future generations can live longer, healthier lives knowing that our nation’s doctors, scientists and health care providers have improved treatments and cures for costly diseases.

For example, KU researchers at the Alzheimer’s Disease Center are already contributing through their work on brain imaging, Alzheimer’s prevention, mitochondrial genetics and cellular metabolism. To accelerate this research, KU has joined in partnerships to expedite clinical trials and get to testing and development of potential treatments. These resources and partnerships — combined with the availability of the Hoglund Brain Imaging Center — create research opportunities unique to KU due to its NIH status and research capabilities.

According to a recent NIH report on Alzheimer’s, today there are more than 5 million Americans living with this disease and by 2050 that number could rise to as high as 16 million. Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases cost $259 billion in 2017; by 2050, that number could explode to $1.1 trillion in total expenses. Furthermore, the report indicates that “in the last five years of life, total health care spending for people with dementia was more than a-quarter-million dollars per person.”

These predictions do not need to become our reality. These astronomical costs can be curbed if these diseases themselves are made treatable and curable.

We must address the costs of health care, not just who pays for health care, to put the United States’ health system on a sustainable financial path forward, including ways to lower costs while treating diseases like Alzheimer’s. If we find new ways to identify diseases early, create new and improved treatments and find cures that improve patients’ lives, it will ultimately lessen the cumulative burden on our health costs.

So many of us care for people who have been affected by serious illnesses. This unfortunate circumstance we share should make it easy to rally behind NIH in hopes of curing these diseases and improving the lives of those we love.

I appreciate the tireless efforts of NIH researchers and the enthusiastic approach they bring to their jobs each and every day. I will continue to work with the National Institutes of Health, NIH-accredited institutions in Kansas and congressional NIH advocates on both sides of the aisle to ensure medical research funding remains a top priority.

This op-ed ran in the Lawrence Journal-World on August 21, 2017.