Cancer agency draws scrutiny of lawmakers

EAST TEXAS (TYLER MORNING TELEGRAPH) - A Texas constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2007 put the state in the fight against cancer, but a local senator wants voters to weigh in on the troubled agency in charge of annually dispersing about $300 million from taxpayers.

Sen. Kevin El-tife, R-Tyler, proposed a constitutional amendment that would require future cancer funding by the state to be scrutinized and debated by legislators each biennium. Eltife said cancer research would be prioritized along with education, law enforcement and other health services.

Eltife said the legislature should budget funding for the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas each session and dedicate revenue rather than debt. It would also bring transparency and level the playing field for emerging cancer programs across the state, he said.

"I am not saying we shouldn't fund cancer research," he said. "I would support putting $200 million a year into cancer research, but from the beginning, I was going into debt to do it and now you add the controversy, and I think Texans might have a new opinion of how business is being done."

Eltife was among seven senators opposed to placing the constitutional amendment that effectively created CPRIT and its fund in 2007. Statewide voters approved (61 percent to 39 percent) selling $3 billion in bonds to establish the institute that would disperse about $300 million annually in support of cancer prevention, research and the development of new treatments and medicines to treat patients.

More than $800 million was given to state-run facilities and private businesses until the fund was frozen during a 2012 investigation into the grant award process.

The University of Texas Health Science Center in Tyler opened its new Cancer Treatment and Prevention Center in fall 2011. The $67 million project was funded by tuition revenue bonds, local institutional funds from patient care revenue and philanthropists.

The Health Science Center receives $37 million annually from the state.

Cancer research had traditionally been funded by the federal government. The National Cancer Institute spent more than $5 billion in 2011 in its own labs and through grants and agreements with universities, hospitals, research foundations and private business.

UTHSC President Dr. Kirk Calhoun said state supported research and prevention programs represent a major component in the fight against cancer. The cancer research and prevention program is new and emerging, Calhoun said. A lack of state investment, whether for seed money to fund research or to recruit top cancer doctors and researchers,

Cancer research is critical for the state and its residents, Calhoun said. Calhoun said he is not concerned that Eltife's bill might create more obstacles for cancer funding.

Calhoun said the mechanism by which funding is distributed and monitored by the state is up to elected officials but he would welcome any level of oversight.

"I think there is agreement across the board that some problems did exist at CPRIT and that anything that can be done to restore public confidence in that agency is critical," he said. "They do a lot of great things, and I am confident elected officials will figure out how to do that."

UTHSC has three grant requests for approximately $9 million to improve colon cancer screenings, develop drugs to aid lung cancer treatment and to evaluate diagnosis by urine tests.


A probe into the CPRIT board's handling of multi-million dollar grant applications was launched in mid-2012 regarding an $11 million grant approved for a private company in 2010 without the required review. On Wednesday, the Travis County district attorney cleared current state officials and board members.

However, there was no mention about former board executives who have resigned in recent months. State leaders, including Gov. Rick Perry, placed a moratorium on future grants while the investigation continues.

Perry, a vocal supporter of CPRIT's creation, appoints the oversight committee which governs the dispersal of grants along with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker Joe Straus.

Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Weatherford, crafted the constitutional amendment approved by voters. He said he is thankful Eltife is not looking to ban cancer funding altogether but believes the recent problems are behind the agency.

Keffers said he did not want to lessen the seriousness of the accusations but that overall CPRIT has worked and that steps are being taken to ensure transparency and fairness.

"People are comfortable with the mission and the mission (to fight cancer) is still there," he said. "People expect the mission is going forward and that is what we need to do."

Keffers said legislators did debate the merits of cancer research and funding it with bonds in 2007. He said members and the public overwhelmingly supported the action. He said House members are disappointed and concerned about the problems at CPRIT but that he believes solutions are available without Eltife's legislation.

Lucy Nashed, a spokeswoman for Perry, said the people of Texas approved the bonds and that the legislature already has say in the funding process.

"To continue the important work of finding cures for cancer with the credibility it deserves, it is vital that CPRIT fully address the concerns that have been raised about its processes and operations prior to future grants being awarded," she said. "It is important that we restore the confidence of the Legislature and Texas taxpayers who approved this important initiative before new funds are dispersed."

Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, voted against placing the constitutional amendment before voters in 2007. He said he supports Eltife's bill.

"While we all support medical advancement, taxing future Texans is not the way to do it," he said.

Eltife reiterated his support for cancer research but said many members are upset with the agency's handling of grant funding over the past two years. He said he expects numerous bills will be filed to address CPRIT. Headlines and questions regarding controversial resignations and suspicions of fraud and favoritism need to be addressed, he said.

"I just wanted to put one more option on the table and I think giving the voters another chance to voice their opinion is a good start," he said. "A lot has happened since 2007."

The $3 billion bond approved to fight cancer in 2007 was among four constitutional amendments that year allowing the state to borrow $9.75 billion to fund Texas highway projects ($5 billion), the Department of Public Safety, prison and mental health ($1 billion), student loans ($500 million), and water and sewer projects ($250 million).


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