Our Views: State, nation smart to focus on dementia crisis

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Gazette editorial board
August 17, 2015

The costs of Alzheimer's and other dementias cannot be overstated.

Current annual costs are $226 billion nationwide, and Medicare and Medicaid pay 68 percent, says Rob Egge, the Alzheimer's Association's chief public policy officer.

Absent a cure, Alzheimer's could affect 16 million Americans by 2050 and cost $1.1 trillion.

“Basically, it will bankrupt Medicare,” Egge says.

Those are just direct costs of caring for the afflicted. They don't factor in unpaid care by families or the workforce drain that care causes.

These numbers and Egge's comments were part of a Kathleen Parker column The Gazette printed in late July. She correctly calls this issue a state of emergency.

That's why the Speaker's Task Force on Dementia that state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, appointed this month deserves applause. It will explore problems and ways to ensure quality of care while addressing costs. It could recommend legislation while promoting community-based resources and considering state participation in treatment and research.

Rob Gundermann, public policy director for the Alzheimer's and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin, calls the initiative a “giant leap forward.”

“The task force will have an incredible opportunity to fix problems, improve quality of care and reduce the fiscal impact of dementia on our state…,” Gundermann said in a news release. “While the state has begun to address this issue, more needs to be done to prepare for what's coming.”

Rep. Beth Meyers, D-Bayfield, a task force member, told Wisconsin Public Radio that the cost of care and support for caregivers should top the list.

“It's a lot more cost-effective to have people remain in their homes,” she said. “What supportive services can we provide? That is a lot cheaper than putting someone in a nursing home.”

Gundermann suggested the task force should explore incentives for home care. His association pegs the value of that care at $2.7 billion and says friends and families provide most of it free.

Rep. Debra Kolste, D-Janesville, also was appointed to the task force. Her extensive experience in the medical field makes her a good fit, and she appreciates being chosen. During the last session, she served on a similar task force on mental health. It developed proposals that became law.

“Serving on that task force was one of the best experiences of my short legislative career,” Kolste said in a news release. “We put partisan concerns aside for the most part and worked toward solutions. I hope this new group can address Alzheimer's disease and dementia with the same spirit.”

Likewise, Washington must unite to boost funding for research dedicated to prevention and treatment. Current funding is less than $600 million, about one-third of what scientists believe is needed to reach their goal of prevention and effective treatment in 10 years.

There is hope. Bipartisan House and Senate subcommittees have approved increases of 50 percent and 60 percent, respectively. The Alzheimer's Association says that money could cut medical costs by $220 billion in the first five years.

Parker is right: If we can't stop this crisis, squabbles over current Medicare funding “will be rendered irrelevant.”


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