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Patients Divided Over Alzheimer’s Drug: Is It a ‘Risk I’m Willing to Take’ or Just a ‘Magic Pill’?

If you listen to the nation’s largest Alzheimer’s disease advocacy organizations, you might think everyone living with Alzheimer’s wants unfettered access to Aduhelm, a controversial new treatment.

But you’d be wrong.

Opinions about Aduhelm (also known as aducanumab) in the dementia community are diverse, ranging from “we want the government to cover this drug” to “we’re concerned about this medication and think it should be studied further.”

The Alzheimer’s Association and UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, the most influential advocacy organizations in the field, are in the former camp.

Both are pushing for Medicare to cover Aduhelm’s $28,000 annual cost and fiercely oppose the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ January proposal to restrict coverage only to people enrolled in clinical trials. Nearly 10,000 comments were received on that proposal, and a final decision is expected in April.

“With respect, we have no more time for debate or delay,” the Alzheimer’s Association national Early-Stage Advisory Group wrote in a Feb. 10 comment. “Every passing day without access to potential treatments subjects us to a future of irreversible decline.” For its part, UsAgainstAlzheimer’s called CMS’ proposal “anti-patient.”

Yet the scientific evidence behind Aduhelm is inconclusive, its efficacy in preventing the progression of Alzheimer’s remains unproved, and there are concerns about its safety. The FDA granted accelerated approval to the medication last June but ordered the drugmaker, Biogen, to conduct a new clinical trial to verify its benefit. And the agency’s decision came despite a 10-0 recommendation against doing so from its scientific advisory committee. (One committee member abstained, citing uncertainty.)

Other organizations representing people living with dementia are more cautious, calling for more research about Aduhelm’s effectiveness and potential side effects. More than 40% of people who take the medication have swelling or bleeding in the brain — complications that need to be carefully monitored.

The Dementia Action Alliance, which supports people living with dementia, is among them. In a statement forwarded to me by CEO Karen Love, the organization said, “DAA strongly supports CMS’s decision to limit access to aducanumab to people enrolled in qualifying clinical trials in order to better study aducanumab’s efficacy and adverse effects.”

Meanwhile, Dementia Alliance International — the world’s largest organization run by and for people with dementia, with more than 5,000 members — has not taken a position on Aduhelm. “We felt that coming out with a statement on one side or another would split our organization,” said Diana Blackwelder, its treasurer, who lives in Washington, D.C.

Blackwelder, 60, who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2017, told me, “To say that millions of people afflicted with a disease are all up in arms against CMS’s proposal is just wrong. We’re all individuals, not a collective.”

“I understand the need for hope,” she said, expressing a personal opinion, “but people living with dementia need to be protected as well. This drug has very serious, frequent side effects. My concern is that whatever CMS decides, they at least put in some guardrails so that people taking this drug get proper workups and monitoring.”

The debate over Medicare’s decision on Aduhelm is crucial, since most people with Alzheimer’s are older or seriously disabled and covered by the government health program.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

The Alzheimer’s Association and UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, the most influential advocacy organizations in the field, are in the former camp.

Source: https://www.montereyherald.com/2022/03/12/patients-divided-over-alzheimers-drug-is-it-a-risk-im-willing-to-take-or-just-a-magic-pill/

Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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