Yoga and your tax dollars

Posted: Jul 20, 2005 12:00 AM

You might think it was a pretty good indicator the federal government was spending too much money on medical research when it started paying advocates of "alternative" medicine to study the impact of yoga on "generalized anxiety."
But then you are not Sen. Arlen Specter, the liberal Republican from Pennsylvania, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees funding for the National Institutes of Health, the federal agency that funds medical research.

 Thanks to Specter, the full Appropriations Committee last week approved a record $29.4 billion in funding for NIH in fiscal 2006. That is $1.1 billion more than fiscal 2005, and $905 million more than President Bush requested.

Back in fiscal 1994, when Bill Clinton was president and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, the NIH spent only $10.95 billion. Since then, with Republicans controlling Congress, NIH spending has almost tripled. In 2000, when Bush first ran for president as a "compassionate conservative," he promised that by 2003 he would double NIH spending from its fiscal 1998 level of $13.6 billion. He was good to his word.

 But now, like an uncontrollable malignancy, NIH won't stop growing.  Explaining the new NIH-spending increase he is pushing now, Sen. Specter said: "The biggest bang for the buck in the federal budget is health-care spending."

 Nonsense. NIH suffers from bloated bureaucracy syndrome, vomiting tax dollars on unnecessary projects all over the country. Congress needs to give it a full fiscal exam and then amputate the extremities.

 Consider some current grants:

 NIH is funding a yoga study at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF). The agency calls it a "[c]ollaboration with the Center for Integrative Medicine at UCSF and the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana in India to establish the Center on Yoga, Health and Meditation." This is part of what NIH calls its effort "to establish global collaborations and cross-cultural exchange among foreign and U.S. institutions to design and implement research on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) approaches that have emerged from traditional indigenous medical systems." In other words, it is a form of foreign aid.

 Congressmen who end up voting for increased NIH funding ought to explain to taxpayers in places like Nashville, Tenn., and Searchlight, Nev., why the federal government should force them to subsidize a yoga project at a University of California hospital located on the fringes of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district.

 And it is not as if UCSF got the only yoga-related grant. The NIH grants database lists 15 other ongoing projects involving this specific "traditional indigenous medical system." Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, for example, is working on a five-year study entitled, "Yoga as a treatment for insomnia."

 At the University of Colorado, Denver, NIH is funding a study of "Yoga for Generalized Anxiety Disorder." This is "an exploratory study assessing the feasibility and promise of studying yoga for the treatment of persons with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)."

 Never heard of GAD? If the NIH abstract for this grant is correct in stating that GAD is "a chronic and debilitating condition that affects 5 percent of the general population," it is almost certain one of your neighbors or co-workers must have it. Now, your tax dollars will help researchers in Denver "test whether unique positive psychospiritual outcomes are associated with use of our yoga treatment."

 Congress needs to study the "psychospiritial outcome" that paying for this kind of research has on hardworking taxpayers. My hypothesis is that more than 5 percent will get sick just reading about it.

 Congress must heal itself here. It can start by putting NIH spending in perspective. The administration requested a 2006 budget of $20.3 billion in discretionary spending for the Justice Department, the agency responsible for prosecuting terrorists inside the United States. That is $9 billion less than Specter's pumped-up NIH budget. Congress, meanwhile, has a clear constitutional mandate to maintain a Justice Department, which carries out a core function of the federal government. But nothing in the Constitution authorizes Congress to fund and operate a medical research service that overlaps and often subsidizes the work of private pharmaceutical and health-care companies, not to mention those devoted to "traditional indigenous medical systems."

 If Congress sends President Bush an NIH budget even more bloated than the one he proposed, he should puncture it with a veto pen. When that causes anxiety among the faculty at certain universities, and among certain members of Congress, they should lie down and do some yoga.