Cuba trip opened Cuomo’s eyes to Roswell Park’s cancer vaccine research

Roswell Park CEO Candace S. Johnson shared a persuasive message about the center’s mission during an April trip to Cuba with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, shown arriving in Havana. New York Times photo

Cuomo has proposed his first budget in years with no cuts to the cancer center, possibly due to the impact of last year’s trade mission

After years of struggle over state funding for Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last week proposed the first state budget in years with no cuts in aid to the Buffalo research hospital.

The reason may lie in a trip last year to Cuba.

The governor’s April trade mission to Cuba included Dr. Candace S. Johnson, Roswell Park’s CEO. Those familiar with the expedition say Cuomo heard Johnson’s persuasive message about Roswell Park’s mission and viewed firsthand Cuban vaccine researchers partnering with the Buffalo cancer center. That combination relieved the annual budget battle with the state, according to several officials and observers familiar with the trip.

Cuomo’s budget honored the full $102.6 million in state assistance Roswell Park requested for 2016-17.

“Cuba made such a difference because it really put Roswell Park in the governor’s mind,” said Donna M. Gioia, a longtime Roswell Park board member who credited Johnson for scoring points with Cuomo.

“It’s because of her leadership,” she said of Johnson. “They trust her.”

Johnson recalled how a dinner gathering and then a visit to Roswell Park’s partner research center influenced Cuomo.

They shared “an authentic Cuban dinner” the night before going to Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology.

“It was a delicious dinner, just lovely, and the governor and I had a great chat that night about the vaccine, what makes it so innovative,” she said. “We talked about the prospect of possibly being able to treat people in the U.S. with the vaccine, and he was as excited as we were about it, and as hopeful that our visit … the next day would be a success.”

Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan said that connection was an “icebreaker,” because it highlighted the hospital’s relationship with the Cuban researchers studying a vaccine that could be used in the prevention and treatment of lung and other cancers.

“This was an opportunity for them to see this cutting-edge research, and now there has been more communication between the Governor’s Office and Roswell Park to see what they are doing,” the Buffalo Democrat said. “Now there is one less battle we have to fight.”

Johnson says she is “thrilled” by the funding level in the governor’s new budget, adding that her goal since assuming leadership at Roswell Park has been to “enhance our partnership and leverage the commitment.”

“I wanted to make sure the governor and lawmakers know we are ‘here for you’ and the citizens of New York,” she said. “I’m not sure we were really focused on that message.”

As recently as 2013, Cuomo expressed doubts about the continued level of state subsidy for the cancer center, sending strong signals that it needed to reduce its reliance on public money.

“The $100 million subsidy will be very hard to continue as the state budget is trimmed,” he said then, pointing to studies about a possible merger with the University at Buffalo. That was never implemented.

Ryan, meanwhile, pointed out that the state’s last three January budget proposals included $15 million in cuts from what was requested. It was only after area legislators intervened that the full allocation was restored, and he hopes the new funding signals a new relationship with Albany.

Johnson, meanwhile, called the trip a “wonderful story” because the Cuban partnership was “lagging along.” She said the governor’s trade mission allowed both parties to “take it to the next level.”

Face-to-face meetings enabled the Roswell Park team to bring the Cuban vaccine to Buffalo for further research, she added, and demonstrated the institution’s value and capabilities to top state officials. She also praised Cuomo for his attention to the Roswell Park story and state funding support.

“What happened from the governor’s trip – and it may develop into much more – is that we were able to avail ourselves of Cuba’s innovative drugs,” she said.

“Hopefully, we have impressed the governor in what we are doing,” she added. “But the governor has impressed us.”

Ryan said the full funding not only relieves the Western New York delegation from pleading its case before budget officials, but indicates that the Cuomo administration sees Roswell Park differently.

“If you view Roswell Park as an asset with $102.6 million, then perhaps the state investment will go up,” he said. “And it was never going to go up if you start off each year with a proposed cut.

“When Dr. Johnson became president, she evaluated the relationship with the state and made decisions about where we need to change the dynamic,” he added. Cuomo’s budget proposal “showed the plan worked.”

By Robert J. McCarthy, The Buffalo News

January 21, 2016

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