- - Tuesday, June 7, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION

Government initiatives frequently cost far too much, and with few results to show for it. Boosters of the bureaucracy consider such waste part of the cost of doing business, while bureaucracy’s critics consider it a good reason to leave problem solving to the rest of society.

Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, has a unique idea to solve one of America’s greatest challenges while turning this cost equation on its head—an initiative that spends no taxpayer money upfront, spurs competition in the private sector, produces more promising results, and saves dramatically more money.

Mr. Wicker wants to establish cash prizes for breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s research that have the potential to save both lives and money. Indeed, considering how much Alzheimer’s is projected to cost taxpayers over the next few decades, it’s possible that prizes leading to a cure for Alzheimer’s—in addition to improving and extending millions of lives—would be one of the greatest government cost saving measures in American history.

The total cost of care for Alzheimer’s patients is projected to exceed $20 trillion by 2050. Taxpayers, of course, will bear much of that cost, including a 420 percent increase in costs to Medicare and a 330 percent increase in costs to Medicaid.

Even without a cure, the premium on breakthrough Alzheimer’s research is high. When I co-chaired the Alzheimer’s Study Group from 2007-2009, we found that delaying the onset of the disease by just five years would cut the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s in 2050 in half, and cut costs by a third.

The fiscal cost of the disease is certainly astronomical, but the human cost is incalculable: the distress of a spouse whose partner is losing cognitive abilities; the countless hours caretakers spend tending to a loved one; and a lifetime of memories slipping away. A cure for this pain would be literally priceless for the families affected by Alzheimer’s.

Despite the disease’s enormous human and financial costs, however, we spend relatively little on the search for a cure. The National Institutes of Health devotes about $586 million annually to Alzheimer’s research—or about one-third of 1 percent of the $154 billion that Alzheimer’s and other dementias are already costing Medicare and Medicaid every year.

The mismatch between the scale of the Alzheimer’s epidemic and the funding for a cure is what Mr. Wicker seeks to address with the EUREKA Act. This bill (S. 2067) would establish prizes for breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s research. These prizes wouldn’t replace the research grants awarded by NIH, but would supplement those awards by stimulating more research.

While one traditional grant funds one research project, one cash prize attracts many competitors. Some competitors might be academic, like the usual recipients of NIH grants. But prizes might also draw competitors from the pharmaceutical or biotech industry, or from startups—all of them using their own funds in pursuit of the prize. As a result, the competition would induce useful research far beyond the amount the government put up for the prize.

The best part is that taxpayers would never pay a cent until a competitor reaches a research milestone—and at that point, the breakthroughs are likely to save taxpayers far more money than the prizes cost.

The EUREKA Act would rely on the expertise of the NIH to establish research milestones for the prizes – breakthroughs such as pinpointing biomarkers related to Alzheimer’s, or developing cost-effective methods to detect the disease early.

The opportunity to achieve better results at a much lower cost is one reason I have been a long-time supporter of prizes for medical and technological breakthroughs. In fact, Bob Walker, my former colleague in Congress, and I actually conducted a workshop on prizes at the National Academy of Engineering in 1999.

I was delighted when Mr. Wicker introduced the EUREKA Act, applying these principles to the urgent task of Alzheimer’s research. It’s equally encouraging that a bipartisan group of 46 senators joined him in cosponsoring the bill, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte, John Barrasso, Thom Tillis, Mark Kirk, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz.

If you believe we need better research to cure Alzheimer’s at a lower cost, call or email your U.S. Senators and urge them to support the EUREKA Act today.

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