A couple of days after the Democratic convention concluded in Philadelphia on July 30, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the event had included a panel discussion on Alzheimer’s disease. One might have thought that the Republican Party would have done the same. After all, Ronald Reagan, often regarded as the most popular Republican president of the twentieth century, may have been showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s while still in office. One of his sons has suggested that this was the case as early as 1984, more than four years before he left office.
The panel in Philadelphia featured Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow and two House members, Paul Tonko of New York’s Capital region, and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon. The overriding theme was that as the Baby Boom generation continues to age, cases of Alzheimer’s are surging. As Stabenow noted, 20 percent of all Medicare costs are now devoted to Alzheimer’s care. Perhaps even more disconcerting, an estimated 16 million family members are caring for a loved one. This may be an adult child who chooses to leave his or her paid job to care for a parent with Alzheimer’s, or an elderly spouse who struggles with the physical demands of providing care. “For the first time, we will reimburse doctors for setting up a plan for families,” Stabenow said. “We’ve been working for years to get this into the budget.”
Stabenow also noted that according to Alzheimer’s care training sessions, only about 40 percent of doctors diagnose people with the disease; the doctors assume that they can’t do anything to help. “And if you are diagnosed, the message is typically, ‘Well, good luck with that’… And then you frantically try to learn what this means.”
The bill also would enable Medicare to reimburse doctors. “But here’s the best part,” Stabenow announced. “I’ve been working with the Health and Human Services department and Medicare and Medicaid, urging them to do it administratively”—basically an end run around a Congress that has done little to concern itself with public health. “It’s no secret that there are many of my colleagues who just want to keep cutting things because government [is perceived] as the problem,” Stabenow said.
If this is not dealt with, Tonko added, “this will drown us. We need truth in budgeting. We need professional budgeting. We shouldn’t leave this to politics. We need the experts to tell us what to do. … With the Alzheimer’s Act, this is now happening.”
Blumenauer, the House member from Oregon, suggested that it may not be essential to find a cure for Alzheimer’s for progress to result; slowing down its progress could buy some time for a cure. “If we are able to delay the progress by five years, we can cut in half the trauma,” he said.
This is not the first time that the Democrats have highlighted a neurological disease at their convention. Back in 2004, the actor Michael J. Fox, who had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s before he turned thirty, called for rescinding the prohibition on federal funding for stem-cell research. Opponents objected because the cells would be derived from human embryos. Soon after Barack Obama became president in January 2009, the prohibition on stem-cell research was rescinded.