It’s no secret that I disagree with President Obama on most issues. However, there was one line in particular in last week’s State of the Union address that caught my attention: His call to prioritize medical research to “unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s.”
The president is right. We need to unlock those answers, not only for humanitarian reasons, but also for fiscal reasons. Today more than 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s, a number that is expected to triple over the next 40 years.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the annual cost to care for Alzheimer’s patients is $172 billion. By 2050, the cumulative cost is projected to reach $20 trillion — a figure greater than our entire national debt. In other words, if the ravages of Alzheimer’s continue unchecked, our fiscal health, as well as our national health, will be greatly damaged.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, polio epidemics stalked the American population. Economists estimated that the United States would spend $100 billion per year — mostly on wheelchairs, iron lungs and other equipment — providing treatment in the aftermath of the disease.
In 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk, working for private charity, the March of Dimes, developed his famous vaccine, which he then took to President Dwight Eisenhower. The Salk vaccine not only saved lives by stopping polio, but it saved money. Thanks to the vaccine, we spend virtually nothing in the United States on polio today.
If we did it once, we can do it again. The United States is home to state-of-the-art hospitals, world-renowned specialists and the greatest teaching institutions in the world.
Here in Minnesota, we have long been a leader in medical innovation. Our state is home to more than 400 medical-device companies. The pacemaker and early organ transplants were a result of our state’s great minds. In addition to saving lives, they created wealth, jobs and incentives for others to research and develop still more life-enhancing products. And that’s one reason why I am fully committed to repealing Obamacare’s onerous medical-device tax.
Yet far too often in the larger health care debate, the discourse focuses heavily on insurance, and not enough on health.
Health insurance is not a synonym for health. Insurance, while necessary, is focused on financial, not medical, challenges. No amount of health insurance is going to give doctors the ability to help you if you show up at the hospital with Alzheimer’s or other kinds of at-present incurable diseases. The main driver of health care costs is illness, and the most effective way to make illness cheaper is by prevention and cures.
A commitment to prioritize medical breakthroughs should be led by visionaries in the public and private sectors, not crushed by bureaucrats and looted by trial lawyers. The successful effort against polio was just such a public-private partnership. Today, I am sure that investors and philanthropists will be eager to step forward with vast amounts of private capital on behalf of cures — but they need to see a clear path to success.
Unfortunately, after decades of overregulation and egregiously predatory tort litigation, the “pipeline” of new drugs has substantially dried up. So while we must keep our high ethical standards intact, we need a rigorous overhaul of the way we conduct research and develop new medicines, including reforming the Food and Drug Administration and shielding good-faith investments while still protecting the legitimate claims of medical victims.
It’s the 21st century; we have smartphones that can double as medical buddies and supercomputers that can data-crunch their way to new cures. With that sort of technological momentum on our side, there is no reason that we can’t power our way to a cure for diseases, including Alzheimer’s.
I’m proud to be known as one of the leading penny-pinchers in Congress, but investing in medical research to find cures, or even postponing the onset of diseases, will provide dramatic savings in the long term — not to mention incredible quality-of-life benefits.
America has always been a land of big thinkers, and if the president means what he says about medical research as a tool to improve our physical and fiscal health, I will be happy to work with him.
Michele Bachmann represents Minnesota’s Sixth District in the U.S. House.