U.S. health care costs rose last year by 5.3 percent — topping $3 trillion — and much attention has been given to the impact of soaring drug prices on Medicare, Medicaid and other government health care programs. But while it has received far less attention, Alzheimer’s disease also threatens to wreak havoc with the Medicare budget in the coming years as millions of aging Americans will require long and costly care.
Hillary Rodham Clinton shifted the spotlight to the Alzheimer’s crisis on Tuesday when she unveiled a proposal to spend $2 billion a year in federal funds with the goal of finding a cure for the disease within 10 years — a highly ambitious target. “We owe it to the millions of families who stay up at night worrying about their loved ones afflicted by this terrible disease and facing the hard reality of the long good-bye,” Clinton said.
This year alone, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia cost the nation $226 billion in medical treatment, nursing home facilities, lost wages of family members taking care of their loved ones and other related costs, according to a report by the Alzheimer’s Association, an advocacy and research group. Half of those costs were borne by Medicare, and nearly one in every five Medicare dollars is spent on treating people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, according to the report. The disease also poses a drain on the Medicaid program for the poor and disabled.
By 2050, the overall annual cost of treating Alzheimer’s could reach $1.1 trillion, largely because of the long-term nature of the disease that makes it more costly to address than other potentially deadly diseases like cancer and leukemia. “This dramatic rise includes a five-fold increase in government spending under Medicare and Medicaid and a nearly five-fold increase in out-of-pocket spending,” the report warns.
An estimated 5.3 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, mostly people 65 and older and nearly two thirds of them women. Because there is no way of preventing or curing the disease, the number of Americans suffering from Alzheimer’s will grow as the overall population ages. By 2025, the number of people with the disease is estimated to reach 7.1 million — a 40 percent increase from today’s level. According to a recent study by the Annals of Internal Medicine, the cost of caring for a person with Alzheimer's in the last five years of life is $287,038.
Clinton’s proposed funding is more than twice what the National Institutes of Health will spend on research in 2016 under the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill approved by Congress last week and signed by President Obama.
The new spending package includes $936 million for Alzheimer’s research, an increase of $350 million over the 2015 level. The spending increase had been sought by the Obama administration, and its inclusion reflects growing concern among Democrats and Republicans alike about the devastating disease that touches the families, friends or associates of most Americans.
The former secretary of state’s campaign did not explain how Clinton planned to pay for the additional research funds. Clinton has vowed to pay for other initiatives by raising taxes and closing generous tax loopholes for corporations and wealthier Americans.
CNBC reported last month that prominent Alzheimer's researchers are optimistic that effective treatments to significantly slow or even halt the symptoms could be available within the next five years. However, some experts say a cure for the degenerative brain disease is many years off at best. “This is a very complex disease and it will take complex answers,” Timothy Armour, president and chief executive of the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, told The Wall Street Journal. “We probably will not have one white pill to kill the disease.”