The American Heart Association (AHA; Dallas) this week launched what it called “the most ambitious public policy campaign“ in the organization's history.

The campaign will rely on 22 million volunteers for a nationwide grassroots campaign to influence policymakers at the national, state and local levels in an effort to combat cardiovascular disease and to “create a sense of urgency“ around heart disease and stroke, the nation's number one and number three causes of death, respectively.

“We have in my mind these three elements for the perfect storm,“ Bob Carson, chairman of the board of the AHA, told Medical Device Daily. “I hope it doesn't happen, but . . . you have an aging population, combined with decreasing commitments to research and skyrocketing healthcare costs, which, of course, already deny healthcare access to a lot of people.“

And, he cautioned, “It's only going to get worse“ unless the government intervenes with more funding for research. Carson said the AHA is the large non-government organization (NGO) funding cardiovascular research today.

“We can't do it alone, we need good government funding support,“ he said. “If we can get additional funding, we know this disaster can be avoided.“

As support for that notion, he pointed to history, specifically the period between 1999 and 2003, when the National Institutes of Health (NIH; Bethesda, Maryland) budget was doubled.

“During that period where the government and the not-for-profit and private sector worked together, death from coronary heart disease dropped nearly 17%, and the death rate for stroke dropped 12%,“ he said.

However, the AHA said that for the first time in 35 years, the FY06 budget for NIH was cut below the previous year's funding levels. Not only that, but the Rural and Community Access to Emergency Devices Program that places automated external defibrillators in many public facilities was slashed by 83%, which the AHA said could potentially eliminate the program in rural areas.

The AHA also estimated that cardiovascular disease would cost Americans an estimated $403 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses in 2006 alone — a figure that Carson points out is the size of the U.S. deficit. The aging of the population is projected to drive costs for cardiovascular diseases up 54% by 2025. Annual stroke deaths are projected to increase nearly 100% by 2032.

“We must reverse this trend,“ said Alice Jacobs, MD, immediate past president of AHA. “Medical research plays a vital role in the discovery of treatments and cures for heart disease and stroke. It has yielded the medical breakthroughs we now take for granted.“

The association's “You're the Cure“ grassroots network consists of more than 100,0000 volunteers, including doctors, scientists, parents, heart and stroke survivors, who are actively involved in the organization's public policy agenda and dedicated to finding cures for heart disease and stroke. The AHA's goal is to expand the network to 250,000 volunteers by 2010.

Among the initiatives to influence policymakers that the “You're the Cure“ advocates will undertake will occur on May 15-16 on Capitol Hill, when about 600 AHA volunteers from across the country will gather for Congressional Heart and Stroke Lobby Day.

Among the association's 2006 public policy priorities are to address inequalities in care experienced by women and minorities, address the rising epidemic of obesity among children, significantly increase federal funding for the NIH that will lead to advances that “predict and pre-empt“ cardiovascular disease, and promote prevention through the work of the newly created Heart and Stroke Division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Atlanta).

“The first challenge that we have,“ Carson said, “is helping the country understand the risk that exists.“

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