THE BLOG

The Alzheimer's/Medicare Connection

03/13/2015 11:38 am ET | Updated May 13, 2015

Washington is a place where policy debates too often prioritize dollars spent over people benefited. Congressional fixation on austerity has often made our nation penny-wise and pound-foolish at a time when well-placed investments would benefit not only our citizenry but also the federal budget bottom line. This is especially true when you look at the case of insufficient funding for Alzheimer's research and the rapidly growing impact this disease has on federal programs like Medicare, the nation's largest health insurer, which handles more than 1 billion claims per year for 52 million beneficiaries; and Medicaid, the nation's primary payer for long-term care services and supports.

Alzheimer's is the most expensive disease in America. We spend more money treating and caring for Alzheimer's victims than for persons suffering from cancer and heart disease. While deaths from cancer and heart disease are declining, the number of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease continues to grow as our population ages. In spite of this demographic reality, federal funding for Alzheimer's research pales in comparison to the commitments made to other disease research. The United States will spend about $5.4 billion this fiscal year on cancer research, $3 billion to research HIV/AIDS and about $1.2 billion on heart disease. Funding for Alzheimer's research will reach only about $566 million at a time when an estimated 5.1 million Americans will have Alzheimer's disease in 2015 and an estimated 13.5 million will have the disease by 2050. There is no known cure yet for Alzheimer's so, without a serious federal commitment to invest new funds in the research needed, the fiscal and human costs of this disease will be increasingly devastating.

According to a new study commissioned by the Alzheimer's Association, America will spend $20.8 trillion dollars over the next generation to care for people with Alzheimer's. That's more than the entire federal debt accrued by our nation over the past 36 years. By 2050, without changes in federal policy, spending in the Medicare program for Alzheimer's and other dementias will increase fourfold to $589 billion in 2050. Put into perspective, that's nearly the annual budget for the entire Medicare program today. We can not continue to ignore the threat this disease poses for millions of American families and federal programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Researchers also found,

In 2015, the costs to all payers for the care of people living with Alzheimer's disease and other dementias will total an estimated $226 billion, with Medicare and Medicaid paying 68 percent of the costs. Based on the current trajectory, costs are projected to increase to over $1.1 trillion in 2050, with Medicare and Medicaid costs increasing to nearly 70 percent of the total.

It's clear that Alzheimer's is not only devastating to the growing number of families whose loved ones are afflicted with this terrible disease but it's impact will also be felt by every American who depends on vital health security programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

The creation of a National Alzheimer's Project and our nation's first "National Plan to Address Alzheimer's Disease," has set a target date of 2025 to find new prevention and treatment plans. Congress added $100 million in 2014 to the National Institute on Aging's funding for Alzheimer's research, and doubled the $100 million going to the BRAIN initiative (which stands for "Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies"). President Obama's FY 2016 budget asks for a $51 million increase in Alzheimer's research, a budget increase which falls far short of the $2 billion a year scientists say is needed to meet the 2025 goal of a national Alzheimer's plan.

Washington's elected leaders need to recognize that increased Alzheimer's funding is a win-win for our nation. If we meet the 2025 national target, millions of Americans could be saved from Alzheimer's so that in 2050, only 9 percent of older adults would have Alzheimer's instead of 16 percent. Medicare alone would save $141 billion in Alzheimer's related expenses.

Moving forward, the "long goodbye" should no longer be about the desperate tragedy of memory loss but instead should represent the cessation of a deadly disease and the aversion of a fiscal crisis. This latest study clearly illustrates the Alzheimer's/Medicare connection but what remains to be seen is whether Congress will do the right thing and make Alzheimer's research funding a true national priority.