The Government Shut Down, But Alzheimer's Did Not

October 23, 2013 - George Vradenburg

Editor's note: this blog post originally appeared on Huffington Post 50

For a tormenting two weeks, the fiscal future of the U.S. seemed to hang in the balance on Capitol Hill. The world's eyes were glued to the Legislative Branch as disagreements boiled into feuds and gave way to iron-fisted gridlock. Markets sputtered. Talking heads excoriated. And while liberal and conservative media outlets disagree on the political consequences, there's a bigger issue no one's talking about: federal research lost.

And it looks like it will keep losing. When the government re-opened, it failed to address the arbitrary, across-the-board sequester that is systematically weakening the federal research enterprise.

This may have superficial appeal on short-term balance sheets, but it's handicapping long-term prospects.

Alzheimer's exemplifies the point. According to the RAND Corporation, Alzheimer's is the most expensive disease in America, costing the nation over $200 billion annually. Costs of the disease are not only driving entitlement spending, but they're escalating the size of the national debt. Moreover, the upward trajectory of costs is fully predictable, as the aging of the Baby Boomer generation will multiply the number of families experiencing the disease.

The sequester, meanwhile, caps NIH investments in Alzheimer's at less than $500 million a year. That's $200 billion in spending with $500 million invested to avoid that spending. If any CEO used that arithmetic, he or she would be fired.

Such is the reality for Federal research. Incredibly, these blunt spending cuts have hit Alzheimer's funding after a series of imaginative and bold steps in the right direction. In 2011, Congress unanimously adopted a law calling for a National Plan that addressed the Alzheimer's challenge. In 2012, the Administration did just that, and it set a goal to prevent and treat Alzheimer's by 2025. The Administration's leadership was given critical support earlier this year when the NIH established the research milestones that would be needed to achieve the 2025 goal. With Executive endorsement, unanimous approval in Congress, and support from the NIH, the critical pieces were coming together.

The cost for this research agenda wasn't insignificant. According to the Alzheimer's Advisory Council to the Administration, which is made up of outside experts, it would take research resources of $2 billion a year to achieve the national goal. But compared to the $200 billion a year in costs for caring for those with the disease -- $2 TRILLION over 10 years -- the $2 billion is a bargain. And the $2 billion annual investment falls well short of the $6 billion invested each year in cancer and the $3 billion invested each year for HIV/AIDS -- two diseases which, though terrible, have far less aggregate cost to society.

Ultimately, with Alzheimer's, the U.S. has established a goal, built a plan to achieve that goal, and created a workable budget for pursuing the goal. Yet one thing remains missing: congressional funding. Meanwhile, while we continue to spending very large and increasing sums to care for those with Alzheimer's, we live with capricious sequestration cuts for the NIH research necessary to manage those costs of care. How stupid is that?

What is to be done?

In early November, the Global CEO Initiative on Alzheimer's, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the National Institute of Aging are hosting the "Alzheimer's Disease Summit: The Path to 2025." Broadly speaking, the Summit will focus on three goals: making more productive use of Federal and private Alzheimer's research dollars; reducing the time, cost and risk of getting new Alzheimer's treatments to patients; and looking to new, coordinated international responses to the Alzheimer's challenge.

If scientists, industry, government and patients can work together to create a new environment for Alzheimer's research and development, we can succeed in beating Alzheimer's by 2025.

Because we have a plan and the commitments needed to execute that plan, we know how to maximize Federal research investments to find the solution to the Alzheimer's puzzle. But we need Congress to step up and fund the very plan that it demanded be created. The Path to 2025 Summit is, perhaps for the first time, bringing together all the players needed to execute that plan and efficiently use the additional resources that Congress need in order to deliver.

The re-opening of government may have solved the immediate crisis du jour, but there can be no long-term solution to our entitlement and debt problems if we do not beat Alzheimer's. The Path to 2025 Summit should persuade any rational Member of Congress that the scientific and industry players needed to prevent this disease are committed and capable of utilizing additional funding efficiently and effectively to achieve our national goal of stopping Alzheimer's by 2025.

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