- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Washington could take a large bite out of the impending Medicare and Medicaid crises — perhaps $61 billion a year as early as 2015 — with a modest investment today in Alzheimer’s research. That’s the message the Alzheimer’s Association brought to a recent editorial board meeting with The Washington Times, and the association’s reckoning looks about right to us. It’s time for President Bush and Congress to hike the National Institutes of Health’s Alzheimer’s research budget.

It’s not widely acknowledged, but Alzheimer’s will be a key part of the Medicare- and Medicaid-spending crisis in the coming decades. Currently, 34 percent of Medicare spending goes to beneficiaries with Alzheimer’s, even though those beneficiaries are only 12.8 percent of the population over age 65. Alzheimer’s patients cost Medicare three times as much as other seniors, in fact, because Alzheimer’s exacerbates care-provision demands for chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease. The approaching baby-boomer retirement threatens to expand the numbers of Alzheimer’s sufferers dramatically. When the association says that “the future of Medicare and Medicaid depends on getting Alzheimer’s disease under control,” it’s not exaggerating.

Given the current state of research, the association figures that a breakthrough to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s and to slow its progression could happen by 2010 with sufficient funding. The most promising avenues of research include drugs to prevent the buildup of amyloid plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers, plaques which appear to be related to the development of Alzheimer’s. Much of the promising research cannot be patented, however — hence the push for greater NIH funding.

By the group’s reckoning, funding the right research areas would cost the federal government approximately another $320 million a year, quite a small figure relative to overall spending and relative to the likely savings. According to a Lewin Group study the association commissioned, a $320 million annual hike in federal funding for Alzheimer’s research could save $51 billion in Medicare spending and $10 billion for Medicaid within five years of a significant breakthrough. The $320 million would raise current federal Alzheimer’s funding by slightly less than half to $1 billion annually. For comparison’s sake, the federal government spends almost three times as much researching HIV/AIDS ($2.9 billion) and more than five times as much for cancer ($5.6 billion).

For returns on a tax-dollar investment, it doesn’t get much better than this. President Bush and Congress should be hiking funding for the National Institutes of Health’s Alzheimer’s research programs. It would be a wise investment in the solvency of Medicare. More than this, it would fulfill the government’s commitment to push health-care advancements that the private sector cannot.

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