ARLEN SPECTER'S IN another campaign.
The former Republican/Democratic senator who's run for everything from mayor to president, who just turned 81 last Saturday, is not quietly leaving the scene.
Instead, he's renewing a push for a cause near to his heart - and his health and the health of America.
Long an ardent advocate of medical research, Specter is working on forming a network of fellow advocates to fight for funding aimed at closing the gap between research and treatment, an effort to cure illness more quickly.
"The gap is caused by pharmaceutical companies not undertaking the expense of developing medicines that NIH [National Institutes of Health] research suggests could be developed," Specter tells me.
"They call the gap 'the valley of death,' " he says, adding that it's currently "several years" wide.
I've long teased Arlen that his decades-long interest in advancing research and increasing NIH's budget is driven by self-preservation; and he candidly admits that he's "a beneficiary" who survived bouts of cancer and other ailments.
But I've also advocated government action in health care - for example, former Gov. Ed Rendell's multiple tries to create a Jonas Salk Legacy Fund to advance in-state biomedical research - on grounds that it's one of the few public-policy areas impacting every citizen.
The ex-senator wrote about the gap issue in an Inky op-ed piece last Friday, noting that closing it not only can speed cures but also can help halt escalating costs, especially in Medicare and Medicaid.
But he's doing more than writing.
Specter's pushing to fund a gap-closing Cures Acceleration Network within NIH. Last year, he amended the new health-care act to include $500 million - later reduced by appropriations committees to $50 million - for that purpose.
At this point, I'd note that pending budget requests by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) for spending on health care in other countries is $9.3 billion - just for this year.
But I digress.
Although the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act became law last March, funding for the cures network is stalled. And some congressional Republicans are mounting counter-efforts to strip the money from the law.
Because of that, the push to cut overall spending and (I imagine) uncertainty about eventual legal rulings on the controversial health-care law, Specter is trying another approach.
"The approach is to start with people," he says, "There are an estimated 110 million people affected directly or indirectly by diseases such as cancer, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, heart disease, stroke, autism and more."
He advocates a national march on Washington.
"I think they could put a million people on the mall if they tried," he says.
He also wants to tap into nationally organized groups dedicated to fighting specific diseases, such as the Parkinson's Action Network, and major institutions capable of raising and benefiting from research funding such as Penn, Pitt, MIT and UCLA.
With the help of a few former Senate aides, he's organizing a fundraising effort to mount a lobbying effort and plans to push a national campaign "everywhere I go."
He's scheduled, for example, to get an honorary degree from Drexel's medical school in May and a national "inspirational honoree award" from the Greg Wolf Fund for cancer research and patient services in New York in June.
The challenge is to overcome anti-government-spending sentiments and the fact that closing the development-to-treatment gap is not a short-term project.
Specter concedes: "That is an inevitable factor."
But he insists he'll keep at it and hopes for some results within two years, "concrete" results within five years.
It is impossible to write about Specter without hearing from readers, bloggers and comment-leavers who think he should simply go away.
But love him, hate him or couldn't care less, this undertaking, no matter his motives, is one that can benefit every citizen.
It's one campaign that all of us should hope Specter wins.
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