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Congress can help Alzheimer’s patients without spending a dime

November 21, 2017

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates may be one of the wealthiest men in the world, but his family has not been immune to the impact of Alzheimer’s—and that’s something his family shares with many American families. Gates recently announced a $50 million personal donation to help develop treatments for the disease. But as science searches for a cure, there’s something Congress can do right now to help the millions of Americans who are suffering, and it won’t cost a dime.

More than 5 million Americans are now living with Alzheimer’s, and that number is expected to skyrocket as our population ages. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the disease already afflicts one in ten Americans age 65 and over. Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death and, along with other types of dementia, costs taxpayers and patients about $259 billion per year in direct costs to American society of caring for those suffering from these diseases.

But the financial costs of Alzheimer’s are only the tip of the iceberg. Seeing the devastation that the disease wreaks on any family is heartbreaking, as Mr. Gates has witnessed in his own family. His financial commitment to fighting Alzheimer’s, as well as the public attention that commitment brings, is being celebrated by the millions of American families who now care for a loved one with the disease or have seen its ravaging effects firsthand.

There are about 87 potential treatments for Alzheimer’s currently in the approval pipeline. But since the current FDA approval process can take 15 years to bring a treatment to market, most people suffering from Alzheimer’s today won’t benefit from any of them.

While patients theoretically can request access to investigational drugs through the FDA’s “compassionate use” program, an untold number of patients cannot get that permission due to an overly complex process that often takes more than 100 hours to complete. While the FDA notes that it authorizes more than 99 percent of the expanded access requests it receives, that number is still remarkably low—about 1,500 in all in 2016. That pales in comparison to the number of terminally ill patients who want the opportunity to try to extend their lives.

While researchers and charities continue to devote enormous resources to Alzheimer’s and other life-threatening diseases, Congress has the opportunity to help patients today. By joining the 38 states (and counting) that have passed “Right To Try” laws, Congress can empower doctors to prescribe treatments for the terminally ill that are being safely used in clinical trials but are still awaiting final approval by the FDA.

The federal companion law was recently approved in the Senate with unanimous support and is awaiting consideration in the House of Representatives. This federal law would make the Right to Try the law of the land, protecting patients nationwide. It would give Americans with Alzheimer’s an additional ─ and timely ─ avenue for seeking a promising treatment.

Promising medical advances are already in the pipeline, and we can begin to reap the benefits of them now. It is time to extend to all terminal patients and those facing life-threatening diseases the option to try investigational treatments.



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