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Legislators commit to bipartisan support of Alzheimer’s funding


 

– The nation’s political sea-change won’t wash Alzheimer’s disease research funding offtrack, two legislators vowed at a Washington briefing.

Rather than descend into partisan budget-bickering under the new administration, lawmakers should reach across the aisle and pass funding bills to vigorously propel the nation toward its goal of having an effective disease-modifying Alzheimer’s disease therapy by 2025.

“If we make this a high-enough priority, we can meet that goal,” Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) said at a briefing sponsored by The Hill newspaper, with support by Eli Lilly. “We should prioritize the work we need to do to achieve it in both the House and Senate, and move forward both aggressively and progressively.”

Reid Wilson (left), national correspondent for The Hill, speaks about Alzheimer's research funding with Sen. Thom Tillis. Michele G. Sullivan/Frontline Medical News

Reid Wilson (left), national correspondent for The Hill, speaks about Alzheimer's research funding with Sen. Thom Tillis.

That means unstinting commitment to releasing research money – and lots of it, said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC).

“I am a strong proponent of investing in research. We simply must continue to put research dollars into Alzheimer’s. If we don’t invest, try to find a cure or treatment, Alzheimer’s will become the single largest driver of health care costs on both a federal and state level. We have to recognize this: We could, potentially, not even be able to provide care for all patients we will have, unless we find a treatment or a cure.”

After a decade of struggle, federal dollars for Alzheimer’s research have begun to creep up. Last year, Congress passed a historic $350 million increase in Alzheimer’s research funding at the National Institutes of Health, raising the total spending to $991 million for fiscal year 2016. Then, in June, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a landmark $400 million funding increase. In July, the House Appropriations Committee approved its own $350 million bump.

In August, the NIH recommended a $414 million increase for fiscal year 2018. If both the fiscal year 2017 increase and fiscal year 2018 request are ultimately passed, funding levels would be very close to the $2 billion/year federal commitment that researchers and Alzheimer’s policy mavens say is necessary to achieve the 2025 goal, set forth in the National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease.

“There’s no such thing as too much research funding,” Sen. Tillis said during the briefing. But, he added, that federal generosity must be wisely husbanded.

“There must also be a sense of discipline along with the funding. Money like that should be targeted in terms of which diseases we go after – they should be areas that have the broadest impact. In a world of scarce resources, we can’t afford to simply throw money around.”

Alzheimer’s research is a perfect example of this careful resource management, he said. The NIH has prepared its second “bypass budget,” a funding proposal that passes the normal legislative channels and goes directly to the President.

Based on the consensus of scientists involved in search for a disease-modifying therapy, this budget proposal estimates the additional money needed to meet the 2025 goal, above the NIH’s baseline Alzheimer’s funding.

Only two other areas of medicine have such a budget: cancer and HIV-AIDS, said Robert J. Egge, chief public policy officer of the Alzheimer’s Association.

“This budget goes right from the scientists to Congress with no filter by the Office of Management and Budget, and lands directly on the President’s desk,” he said in an interview. “It tells legislators what scientists need in order to accomplish that 2025 goal.”

The $2 billion/year figure, Mr. Egge noted, is a ground-floor suggestion. “That’s what we need right now to stay on track. We think the best way to figure out where we need to be in the long-term is to let the scientists at NIH tell us what they need, and we need Congress and the Administration to follow this year to year.”

Like Sen. Tillis and Rep. Tonko, Mr. Egge was upbeat in anticipating steady funding progress.

“The champions of Alzheimer’s funding who have made such a difference for us are all back and in their same positions,” with unstinting commitment to the cause.

Those legislators include:

• Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, which funds the NIH. In 2015, Rep. Cole shepherded through a $300 million appropriation for Alzheimer’s research, and the pending $350 million appropriation for fiscal year 2017.


• Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), who, as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, secured June’s $400 million and a $350 million bump in 2015.

• Ranking member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who cosponsored the Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Act of 2009, and who worked with Sen. Blunt to secure the recent Alzheimer’s funding increases.

Mr. Egge is not overly troubled about the antiscience rhetoric bandied about by some potential members of President-elect Trump’s administration. He predicted those rumblings will settle down and not negatively affect Alzheimer’s funding.

“I think all the talk of not believing in the science of biomedical research was premature,” he said. “I think it’s completely appropriate to say ‘We are going to watch closely and form opinions,’ but I have never been overly alarmed by this. As an Alzheimer’s advocate for strong science, I am waiting to see what the next steps are. President-elect Trump has said on the campaign trail that Alzheimer’s would be a top priority. Our champions from both parties are fully committed to this fight and recognize that science is the fundamental path to do so. I share this optimism. It’s not complacent optimism – it’s vigilant optimism that we will continue with the momentum we need to finally, squarely and effectively, address this disease.”

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