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House panel approves funding for Alzheimer’s awareness campaign

Mary Margaret Lehmann first began to notice her husband, Ken, was having trouble with his judgement, reasoning and problem-solving skills in 1995, when he was 58 years old and the couple lived in California.

Unfortunately, it would take another 15 years and visits to nine physicians before Ken was correctly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a neurological disorder and form of dementia.

“One geriatrician fleetingly suggested Alzheimer’s and told us to come back in a year,” she told the House Preventive Health Division Wednesday. “I thought, 'How could this doctor even consider Alzheimer’s?' Ken had no memory issues.”

HF313, as amended, would direct the Department of Health to develop materials and launch a statewide information program to raise awareness of dementia and highlight the benefits of early detection, cognitive testing and warning signs, along with the importance of discussing cognition with a health care provider.

It was approved 11-0 by the division and referred to the House Health Finance and Policy Committee. The companion, SF178, is sponsored by Sen. Carla Nelson (R-Rochester) and awaits action by the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee.

An awareness program may have helped the Lehmann’s, who would eventually go bankrupt and lose their home when Ken’s cognitive issues led to problems paying bills, taxes and other financial missteps.

Luckily, the couple was able to move back to Minneapolis to live with their daughter and through a friend were able to connect with the Alzheimer's Association of Minnesota-North Dakota and doctors who made the diagnosis.

Josh Ney, the association’s manager of state affairs, said there are 99,000 Minnesotans with Alzheimer’s disease, a number that is expected to jump to 120,000 in the next four years.

But there are still a number of misconceptions about the disease and many people believe memory problems are just a normal part of getting older.

“Only about half of those with Alzheimer’s have been diagnosed,” Ney said, adding that although Black and LatinX Minnesotans are more likely to get the disease they are also less likely to be diagnosed.

Early diagnosis allows for early treatment and the opportunity to build a care team, participate in support services and possibly take part in clinical trials.

The bill seeks a $250,000 appropriation from the General Fund in fiscal year 2022 for the awareness program. The money would to be used to create materials, make them publicly available and implement an initial statewide information campaign using them.

The program would be required to include culturally specific messages and messages to underserved communities.

Rep. Fue Lee (DFL-Mpls) sponsors the bill, which he says has bipartisan support. It is personal to him because his 76-year-old father “has taken a step back” cognitively and the family is trying to get him the best care possible.

“I know there is a lack of information out there,” Lee said. “And so what we’re doing with the support of the Legislature is really getting out on the forefront so that we can have materials for families going through a similar situation.”

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