Maria Shriver's Bold Quest

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In a single bold move, Maria Shriver, the first lady of California, has started to change the debate over healthcare, shifting the focus from “care” to “cure.” In taking up the cause of curing Alzheimer’s Disease (AD)--not just treating it--Shriver is posing an intellectual challenge both to the political culture and to the media. Can the politicos and MSM-ers, fatigued by two years of wrangling over Obamacare--with no end in sight--handle a new idea in the healthcare field? Or will they insist on the same-old-same-old--no matter how much it costs?

It’s easy to see why Shriver would grab media attention, even at a time when there’s no shortage of news: election politics, the economy, Afghanistan, plus various Chileans, Russians, and Iranians. Because of her national prominence, she has appeared on “The View,” “This Week,” and “ABC World News with Diane Sawyer,” among many other news and entertainment outlets, including Time magazine. The talk in all of her media appearances has been focused on her new study, “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Takes on Alzheimer’s,” released in conjunction with the Alzheimer’s Association. The purpose of this P.R. blitz is simple: to build a constituency for an all-out scientific attack on AD.

To that good end, Shriver, is more than willing to make use of her celebrity. Not only is she married to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but she had a long career at NBC News and CBS News.

In addition, she is the daughter of Sargent and Eunice Shriver. Sargent Shriver was the first director of the Peace Corps, U.S. ambassador to France during the Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War, and the Democratic Party’s 1972 vice presidential nominee. The late Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the founder of the Special Olympics and a longtime champion of the greater integration of the disabled into the mainstream--and Maria is thus the niece, of course, of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Edward M. Kennedy, as well as first cousin to Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) and many other prominent Kennedys, including Fox News’ own Douglas Kennedy.

Yet it is Sargent Shriver, now suffering from A.D., who has become the focus of Maria’s attention.

Indeed, A.D. should be the focus of all of our attention, because it is not only a medical epidemic, but also a rapidly growing fiscal burden to the nation. AD is the sixth-leading cause of death in the US; some 5.3 million Americans suffer from it--up dramatically from 30 years ago. [See chart.]

Admittedly, part of the growth of Alzheimer’s is the statistical result of better diagnosis, as well as the fact that Americans are living longer. But that’s why Shriver’s activism is so valuable: The time has come for us to realize that we all confront a major new threat to our health. And so once again, it’s time for us to mobilize in a righteous cause.

The personal tragedy of AD aside, the disease is also costly--a major driver of Medicare costs. And if, as projected, A.D. triples in the next 40 years, the expense will be all the greater. Yet perversely, while we already spend $170 billion a year on AD treatment, we invest only about $500 million on AD research.

But if we could cure AD--as we cured, say, polio--then we could save a lot of that money. And if we can’t cure AD, or at least push back its onset, we will either be spending endlessly greater amounts, or else facing painful cuts that could leave AD-racked senior citizens to suffer even more.

If the AD status quo continues, we will be in a rock-and-hard-place situation: Do we continue to pay for everybody’s health care, no matter how much it costs--as Democrats might wish? Or do we try to make cuts--as Republicans might wish?

There’s no guarantee that we can afford to spend money for all that care, and there’s also no guarantee that the voters will put up with GOP-instigated cuts. Republicans right now are riding high, but if the future GOP gets into trench warfare with AARP over cuts to Medicare, well, that will be a hard slog, even for mighty elephants.

But there is a better way: medical progress. We don’t spend money on polio anymore, because we invested, instead, in the Salk Vaccine. The vaccine was a win-win. A win for patients, and a win for the Treasury.

Yet the Salk Vaccine, introduced in 1955, was so long ago that most Americans have forgotten all about it--as well as the idea that curing diseases is a better solution than treating those diseases. Over the last few decades, we have redefined “medicine” into “health care,” and that means that we have, without quite realizing, shifted from thinking about “cure” to “care.”

The old focus on science and medicine has yielded to a new focus, simply the haggling over budgets and finance. And the political class--which has spent the last two years fighting over Obamacare, pro and con--and the chattering class have both fallen into this “bean counting” trap.

So can the pols and chatterers come to grips with the reality that Shriver is talking about a completely different approach? An approach more akin to JFK’s dramatic “moonshot”--focusing on a specific, remarkable goal--than to Barack Obama’s bureaucratic health care plan? We shall see.

In the meantime, we will have to put our faith in the American people. Ordinary folks know that when they go to the doctor or the hospital, the first issue is getting better and feeling better. Health care finance, while important, is secondary to health itself.

But popular common sense takes us only so far. There’s still the issue of actually inventing and producing the needed cures.

So that’s Shriver’s challenge, to shift the argument from costly care to a better long-term solution, which is cure. A cure strategy might seem expensive in the short run--and might require many legal and regulatory changes, as well as greater public and private expenditures--but it will be far cheaper in the long run.

For the sake of all us, let’s hope she succeeds.

James P. Pinkerton is a writer, Fox News contributor and the editor/founder of SeriousMedicineStrategy.

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