Obama Pushes Genomic Research in State of Union Speech

January 20, 2015

In tonight's State of the Union Speech, President Barack Obama unveiled what he called his Precision Medicine Initiative, which relies on genomics to "deliver(s) the right treatment at the right time."

"I want the country that eliminated polio and mapped the human genome to lead a new era of medicine . In some patients with cystic fibrosis, this approach has reversed a disease once thought unstoppable," he said, adding that this kind of personalized medicine could lead to cures for cancer and diabetes.

On a more basic public-health note, he told the nation that Americans need not just health insurance, but also paid sick leave so they can freely use their coverage.

Obama touted the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for helping with the first need. In 2014, more than 10 million Americans gained coverage through the health insurance exchanges and Medicaid expansion under the law, he said, adding that he would veto any effort to undo these gains.

To meet the second need, Obama urged Congress to pass the Healthy Families Act, which would require businesses to give employees up to seven paid sick days per year. His administration, he said, also would drum up support for similar laws on the state level. Right now, only California, Massachusetts, and Connecticut require paid sick leave.

Since unveiling the proposal for paid sick leave earlier this month, the Obama administration has contended that the policy reduces turnover and boosts productivity, although critics fear that it encourages absenteeism. One 2010 study points to a clinical benefit of paid sick leave — higher rates among women for breast exams, Pap tests, and cholesterol screenings.

"Rolling Back Ebola"

As in recent State of the Union addresses, Obama spent far more time discussing economic growth and foreign relations than healthcare. In addition to talking up genomics, highlighting greater insurance coverage, and promoting paid sick leave, Obama made one other foray into a field that comprises roughly one-sixth of the nation's economy.

He praised the work of US scientists, troops, physicians, nurses, and other healthcare workers in "rolling back Ebola" in West Africa.

"But the job is not yet done — and the world needs to use this lesson to build a more effective global effort to prevent the spread of future pandemics, invest in smart development, and eradicate extreme poverty," he said.

A Plan to Share the Wealth

The president came into tonight's address bolstered by a recent jump in his approval ratings, based to a large extent on an improving economy. A poll released Monday by the Washington Post and ABC News showed that the percentage of Americans who like his performance in office rose from 43% in October 2014 to 50% in January. And in another survey published today by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal, Obama's approval rating has risen from 40% to 46% since last August. The latter survey reports a corresponding increase in the percentage of Americans who are satisfied with the nation's economy.

Obama played the economic card with relish tonight, pointing to more than 11 million jobs created so far during his administration and the fastest rate of job growth since 1999. "Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis," he noted.

Obama said this progress vindicated his philosophy of "middle-class economics." As expected, the president pitched several ideas to further help the middle class, but they may not get very far in a Congress that came under complete GOP sway in last November's general election.

One proposal, which he announced in advance of the speech, is to make community college free for "responsible students." The federal government would foot 75% of community college tuition; participating states would provide the rest. Obama would pay for this educational benefit by rewriting the tax code to share the wealth.

In the official Republican response to Obama's speech, newly elected Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) downplayed the economic progress cited by the president and called the ACA one of his "failed policies."

"We see the hurt caused by canceled healthcare plans and higher monthly insurance bills," said Ernst. She promised that her party would keep on fighting to "repeal and replace" the ACA. And she said Republicans, as always, would cut wasteful spending and eschew tax increases in the pursuit of a balanced budget.


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