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Commencement remarks by U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern

On June 1, 2014, U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern (MA-2) delivered the Commencement Address at the 41st annual Commencement of the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.  Congressman McGovern shared the dais with UMass Medical School Chancellor Michael F. Collins; and honorary degree recipients Len and Cherylann Gengel, founders of the “Be Like Brit” orphanage in Haiti; and H. Brownell Wheeler, MD, founding chair of surgery at UMass Medical School.

Chancellor Collins, members of the faculty, graduates, family and distinguished guests, thank you for welcoming me here today.

I am particularly honored to be here with some very dear friends of mine, Len and Cherylann Gengel, who since the tragic loss of their daughter Britney in Haiti, have worked to fulfill Brit’s dream of helping Haitian orphans grow and thrive.  I visited the orphanage they built.  It’s an extraordinary place.

I have gotten to know Len and Cherylann very well over the last few years, and you don’t know the meaning of the term “dogged determination” until you’ve seen them in action.

I want to congratulate Dr. Wheeler, whose tireless work and bold vision for this institution has become legendary, for his honorary degree.

And I want to acknowledge my dear friend [Massachusetts State Senator] Harriette Chandler; Bob Caret, the president of the University of Massachusetts; Henry Thomas III, chair of the UMass Board of Trustees; and Dr. Eric Dickson, CEO of UMass Memorial Health Care.

When Chancellor Collins first asked me to be today’s commencement speaker, my first reaction, of course, was “who canceled?”

Because I do not come from a tradition of distinguished physicians or nurses or researchers or medical experts.

I come from a long and storied line of patients.

If there is an obscure disease buried on page 437 of a diagnostics manual, the McGoverns have had it.  Or, more accurately, we have convinced ourselves and tried to convince others that we have it.

“No, doctor, I have never been bitten by a zebra in Zimbabwe, but I did watch ‘Out of Africa’ once.”

So on behalf of my family —lotsa luck.

A wise woman used to tell her sons – “First you have to want to; then you can.”

I never had the pleasure of meeting Rita Collins, the Chancellor’s mother, who had that sage advice.  But all of you graduating today clearly have lived up to her words.

What you have accomplished wasn’t easy.  It was tough!  But you wanted to dedicate your lives to healing people, and you are succeeding.  You are entering into an honorable profession.  And like your families and friends, I am very proud of you.

I don’t have to tell you that you are embarking on your medical careers during a time not only of great promise, but also of great uncertainty.

We have made extraordinary strides – just in my lifetime – in preventing and diagnosing and treating some of the most dangerous and frightening diseases on the planet.  We are living longer than ever before.

Groundbreaking research is happening every day, including here at UMass Medical School.  New treatments.  New drugs.  The most talented and committed and passionate doctors and nurses in the world. All right here.  It’s simply amazing, and UMass Medical is rightfully recognized as an international leader.

American health care is the best in the world.  But quite frankly, we need to make it better.

But the American health care SYSTEM – the way we get that care to the people who need it – remains deeply flawed.

The Affordable Care Act, which has been unnecessarily controversial, has helped millions and millions of Americans obtain quality, affordable health care.  That’s a good thing.  But there are still millions more who need to be enrolled.  Health care should be a right, not a privilege.

But we still have a long way to go.

We need to find a way to control health care costs, especially as the baby boom generation ages.

We also need to do more – much more – to maintain and increase the physician workforce in this country.  Simply put, there are not enough of you to meet the need.  Medicare is the largest source of funding for medical residencies, but Congress has frozen the number of training slots it will fund. That has to change.

Hunger and obesity – the two sides to the coin of food insecurity – continue to plague us.  And being poor is still a pre-existing condition.

My grandmother used to say that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” It was annoying, but of course she was right.  There are 50 million people in our country who are food insecure or hungry.  There are people stuck in poverty who don’t have the luxury of giving their kids fresh fruits and vegetables.

One of the things we didn’t talk about during the debate on the Affordable Care Act was hunger – and how poverty literally makes people sick.

I am grateful to your class for the work that you’ve done at the Worcester County Food Bank and volunteering your time in health clinics and schools, working with vulnerable populations.  Please continue those good works.

Unfortunately, in Washington, the conventional wisdom these days is that we can’t invest in anything, because the only things that matter are the deficit and the debt.  Our debates on budgets and appropriations bills are all about how much we must cut. 

We’re told that all but the very wealthy need to sacrifice more.  And we’re told what we CAN’T do instead of figuring out what we can and should do.

We’ve begun to think small, and rarely even talk about anything big.

Quite frankly, it drives me nuts.

We’re the country that first put a man on the moon, for Pete’s sake.  We’ve led the world in so many technological advances and medical breakthroughs over the years.

We. Do. Great. Things.  And I don’t ever want to see the day when we don’t.

Yes, the deficit and debt are important issues, and they must be addressed.  But rather than balancing the budget by cutting Medicare and Medicaid benefits, why don’t we instead find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease?

Think about it.  If we did find a cure, we would prevent a lot of human suffering, and we would save a boatload of money – enough to stabilize our federal health care spending.  The cost of providing proper care for people with long-term illnesses, as you all know, isn’t cheap.

Alzheimer’s isn’t going away on its own.  We must find better treatments.  We must cure it.  And to cure it we need to invest in the necessary medical research, like the research that is being done here at UMass Medical School.

And there is a need for urgency.  Members of the baby boom generation, like me, are aging – hopefully, gracefully. 

There was a New York Times story a couple of weeks ago that cited a study by Rush University Medical Center that says that Alzheimer’s disease “was the underlying cause of 500,000 deaths in the United States in 2010.  This means that in a single year, Alzheimer’s claimed nearly as many lives as AIDS – responsible for 636,100 American deaths – had taken in more than three decades.”

So what do we do?

First, let’s commit – really commit – to adequately funding the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Research funded by NIH at institutions like UMass Medical School has been the single greatest contributor to advances in health in human history.  Today the average American lives six years longer than in the 1970s, largely because of pioneering NIH investments.

Once, four out of five children with leukemia died.  Today, thanks in large part to NIH-funded research, four out of five survive.

Over the past 50 years, NIH-funded research has led to a 50 percent decline in deaths from heart disease and a 60 percent decrease in deaths from stroke.

NIH-funded research has led to a vaccine that can protect women against cervical cancer, a deadly disease that kills nearly 4,000 women each year.

Rotavirus, which kills 600,000 children a year worldwide, is now being prevented with two safe and effective vaccines developed with the support of NIH-funded research.

Today, an HIV-positive 20-year-old can expect to reach an age of 70 due to antiviral drugs developed through NIH-funded research, whereas 30 years ago an HIV diagnosis came with a life expectancy of just two years.

So we know – without a shadow of a doubt – that basic medical research produces results.

But here’s what worries me.  I have actually had researchers come to my Washington, D.C., office to tell me that Singapore was offering a better deal for their research than the United States.

According to a New England Journal of Medicine article in 2012, China has increased medical research by 67 percent.  South Korea by 24 percent. India by 15 percent. Singapore by 12.5 percent.

Yet here in the United States, in constant dollars, NIH hasn’t seen an increase in federal funding since 2003!

If you look at NIH funding in terms of constant 2003 dollars, we invested 22 percent LESS last year than we did a decade ago.  That is simply unacceptable.

You might remember the TV series “The West Wing” with Martin Sheen as the president.  I’m waiting for a dramatic “West Wing” moment when President Obama walks from the White House, up Pennsylvania Avenue, probably in a rainstorm, to the Capitol and demands that Congress – at a minimum – double the NIH budget.

That our researchers double their efforts to find cures for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and diabetes and cystic fibrosis and pancreatic cancer and every other disease known to humankind.  And Congress, so moved and overwhelmed with guilt, caves and does the right thing.

End scene.

Unfortunately, as you well know, we’re not living in a TV show.  This is real life.  So here are some final words.

I know politics can be frustrating to watch, and I meet with people all the time who tell me what they want and then say, “Oh, but I don’t want to be political.”  Too bad.

Being political doesn’t have to mean being partisan or nasty – it means fighting to get what you want and what you believe is in the best interest of your city or your state or your country.

And that means dealing with the Statehouse in Boston and with Congress in Washington. 

I’m not asking any of you to run for Congress – at least not until I retire.  But you must play a role.

I’m going to tell you something that I’m sure will SHOCK many of you – intelligence is not always a prerequisite for serving in elected office. YOU all must become advocates and teachers.

YOU must raise awareness, and yes, sometimes engage in a little protest.  It can be good therapy. Teach government officials, but also teach your neighbors and your friends and your communities.

You have been given a great gift with the education you received here.  You will certainly change for the better the lives of those you treat as nurses and doctors and the people you help through your research.  But you have the potential to do more.

An old history professor of mine used to say that “the world will not get better on its own.”  He was right.  We need your help.

And so I will close with something that might be strange in a speech to graduates of medical school.  I will ask you, when you confront the diseases of cynicism and apathy, to violate your Hippocratic Oath and pull the plug. 

Go be great. And congratulations. Thank you.