The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality could be operating on borrowed time. Althought AHRQ has been funding health IT research for decades, it now faces heavy budget cuts or even termination, if Congress has its way.
Whether or not AHRQ continues as an agency depends on whose version of the fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill ultimately prevails in congressional budget negotiations. The FY 2016 House Appropriations bill calls for the outright termination of AHRQ effective Oct. 1, 2015—which was the beginning of the new fiscal year—while the FY 2016 Senate Appropriations bill would limit the agency’s funding to $236 million, a 35 percent budget cut from the previous year.
“Our committee faces budget constraints. Because of this, ARHQ, like many other programs across the federal government, saw a reduction in funding,” says Stephen Worley, deputy communications director for the Senate Appropriations Committee.
For now, AHRQ is able to operate thanks to a short-term continuing resolution passed by Congress to maintain federal operations and prevent a government shutdown. The legislation continues funding for government programs and services until December 11, 2015.
An agency spokesperson said that “AHRQ is continuing to do its work supporting evidence research to improve quality and safety of health care, developing tools to help improve care, and generating data and measures.”
Federal funding will continue for the length of the continuing resolution, or until Congress approves FY16 appropriations legislation.
“AHRQ is one of thousands of funding issues that the House and Senate Appropriations Committees will need to resolve before government funding expires,” according to Worley. “At this point, it is impossible to speculate on final funding levels for AHRQ or any other program.”
Some lawmakers may want to de-fund AHRQ, but the agency has strong supporters who have made known their opposition. Last month, 195 stakeholder groups sent letters to House and Senate appropriators voicing their concerns about AHRQ’s future and urging them to work together to enact sequestration relief and restore the agency’s budget authority to $364 million.
“We understand lawmakers face difficult choices in funding myriad priorities with increasingly limited resources, but deep cuts to AHRQ in the current fiscal environment are pennywise and pound foolish,” state the letters. “AHRQ-funded research, tools, and datasets are being used in health settings across the nation to help us understand and improve a complex and costly health system so that we can achieve better outcomes for more people at greater value. AHRQ’s research and data help Americans get their money’s worth when it comes to health care. We need more of it, not less.”
In FY 2015, AHRQ’s health IT portfolio was funded at more than $28 million, including an additional $4 million provided by the Senate to work on HIT grants related to patient safety.
“We really do play a unique role in doing the research and the evidence on how health IT actually works to improve care,” argues Arlene Bierman, M.D., director of AHRQ’s Center for Evidence and Practice Improvement. “There’s nobody else that’s quite doing it the way we do it.”
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