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Alzheimer’s Group Intensifies Grass-Roots Strategy

Just about everybody, it seems, wants Mattye Pollard-Cole’s vote.

President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney have circulated through her home state of Colorado multiple times, and her congressional district in suburban Denver is the scene of a tossup race attracting the attention and dollars of national groups.

But Pollard-Cole has a pitch of her own for those seeking public office. She wants more federal funding for research into Alzheimer’s disease, which claimed her husband even before his death last year, a month after his 62nd birthday. And when the elections are over, she will continue to press her cause with elected officials.

“It’s become a real passion for me,” she said.

At a time when slashing government budgets is all the rage, it might seem an impossible feat to get more money out of Washington, D.C.

But that’s why Pollard-Cole is part of a burgeoning network of volunteer lobbyists mobilized by the Alzheimer’s Association. The group is intensifying its grass-roots effort, tapping voters in battleground states to show up at campaign events to increase the odds that research spending will loom large on the national agenda. At the same time, the association is using polling and other political tools to raise the public policy profile of the disease.

It’s a well-worn path for corporate and nonprofit interests alike.

“We are working to inject this into the political conversation,” said Robert Egge, vice president of public policy for the Alzheimer’s Association. “This is going to be a disease that Americans are going to be talking about in a political context.”

One of the group’s recent bipartisan polls by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and Public Opinion Strategies found that more than 1 in 3 likely voters have a loved one with Alzheimer’s and about 1 in 5 are more likely to vote for someone committed to making research on the condition a national priority.

Volunteers such as Pollard-Cole and one of her counterparts in Iowa, April Holden, have taken on the association’s statistics-based message for fiscally minded members of Congress: Pay me now or pay me later.

“We can either keep ignoring it with no treatment and no cure, and the majority of those costs will be paid by Medicaid and Medicare,” Holden said. “Or we can start funding research to find a cure.”

Because of the limited pot of federal research dollars administered by the National Institutes of Health and other agencies, there is inevitable competition among patient advocates for limited resources.  

“It’s so sad to me how little research dollars are spent on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s,” Pollard-Cole said. “Every disease is bad, but if you just look at statistics, I think we should be spending 10 times as much on research for Alzheimer’s as we do right now.”

Some of the group’s recent polling data, Egge said, showed that when it comes to medical conditions, Alzheimer’s was second to cancer atop voters’ minds.

“This shows that this is something that is on the minds of Americans and likely voters in particular,” he said. “Policymakers don’t have to make the case that Alzheimer’s is important because Americans are already dealing with that.”

Iowa has been a major part of the association’s political effort, Egge said. With its first-in-the-nation caucus, it’s a state where voters frequently get to meet presidential contenders up close and can use that precious face time to make their case.

Holden and her family moved from Wisconsin to Iowa City, Iowa, to be near her mother-in-law, Sheryl Holden, who, at 69, has Alzheimer’s. “We can just see Sheryl slipping away little by little,” April Holden said.

The National Alzheimer’s Project Act was signed into law in January 2011. The Alzheimer’s Association said it is now working on implementing the measure. In support of a National Alzheimer’s Plan, Obama’s 2013 budget proposal included $100 million in additional funding for research, education and outreach. This is a major talking point for Holden.

“What we’re asking our representatives to do is support the goals of the plan, and we’re asking for an additional $100 million in the next budget,” she said. “Which sounds like a lot of money, but if you compare that to the National Cancer Institute, it is something that is reasonable.”

The NIH estimates its fiscal 2012 spending on Alzheimer’s will total $498 million. Spending on cancer research is projected at $5.45 billion, while infectious disease research will receive $3.86 billion.

Egge said each of the Alzheimer’s Association’s 350 volunteer lobbyists, or “ambassadors,” met with his or her lawmaker an average three times this year. Next year, Egge said the goal is seven meetings with each member of Congress.

Regardless of what happens on Election Day, Pollard-Cole has a meeting set up with Rep. Mike Coffman (R), her representative, who is locked in a tight race with Democrat Joe Miklosi.

She said she has already met with Coffman and his staff in Colorado and in D.C.

“I think he’s becoming interested in helping co-sponsor some of our upcoming legislation,” said Pollard-Cole, who is a precinct committeewoman for Democrats. “He doesn’t have any personal history of Alzheimer’s in his family. So I think for him, his awareness has really been raised about how widespread this disease is. There are so many competing interests, being a constant presence has made a difference.”

Pollard-Cole said she has been sure to bring at least one other constituent to her meetings with Coffman.

“One of the takes I always take with him is the financial impact it has,” Pollard-Cole said. “Of the dollars we spend on Medicaid funding, a person with Alzheimer’s will spend 19 times as much as someone without Alzheimer’s.”

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