Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Senators Earmarked Government Money for Their Alma Maters

It is well known that academic institutions encourage their alumni to contribute. The Washington Times just reported examples of alumni arranging contributions to academic health care institutions made with other peoples' money.

Senators have earmarked more than $40 million for health care projects at college and university systems they attended — more than one-fifth of all money being sought through a special federal program to help the country's uninsured, records show.

Records also show that the average grant to the senators' schools was more than three times the average amount of money given to other schools under the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) program, where increasing earmarks have attracted concern from federal officials and government watchdogs.

The Times came up with some good examples of Congressman and Senators arranging earmarks for their alma maters.

  • Senator Byrd (D- West Virginia) and Mountain State University -" In one of the largest Senate earmarks through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, wants $3.6 million to build an 'allied health technology tower' at the 4,422-student Mountain State University, which the Democrat attended when it was Beckley College, Senate records show." The earmarks included "$1,575,000 for a virtual-colonoscopy outreach program, $1,575,000 for a bioengineering institute and $3,250,000 for construction of a patient care and clinical training site."
  • Senator Shelby (R - Alabama) and the University of Alabama - "The largest Senate earmark through HRSA provides $11 million for the University of Alabama. Requested by Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby, a 1957 graduate of the university, the earmark provides 'construction, renovation and equipment' for a new health services building."

In general, earmarks directed toward alma maters were larger than those directed elsewhere, "Overall, the average Senate HRSA earmark was worth less than $500,000, documents show. But the 25 earmarks by senators to their old schools had an average worth of almost $1.7 million."

The article noted that earmarked money is provided without any attempt at an outside review of clinical, scientific, or educational merit.

Earmarks are a way for members of Congress to send federal money for specific projects. But a recent program assessment by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Management and Budget has raised questions about past years' congressional HRSA earmarks, which more than doubled from 451 projects in 2003 to 932 in 2005.

'Earmarked projects often serve local interests and do not fulfill national priorities or needs,' the assessment stated. 'Earmarks do not necessarily reflect a community's most pressing needs.'

'The HRSA earmarks awarded to universities or other research institutions are not based on scientific merit or any competitive process.'

It's nice that our US legislators want to contribute to their alma maters. But directing federal money preferentially to the schools they attended appears to be yet another example of pervasive conflicts of interest in health care (albeit an example, for once, that has nothing to do with pharmaceuticals, biotechnology firms, and device manufacturers). Each such conflict has the potential to waste health care dollars and make incentives in health care more perverse.

Note: for a previous example of how the US congressional earmark process seemed to distort health care priorities and funding, see this post.

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