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Commentary Health Care

Opinion: An Opportunity to Help Marylanders With Dementia

Dementia
Stock.adobe.com photo by JPC-PROD.

By David McShea and JR Paterakis  

The writers are, respectively, executive director and chair of the board of directors of the Alzheimer’s Association’s Greater Maryland Chapter.

Michael Razzi shared his story during this year’s General Assembly session about how he began to experience memory problems at age 58. A battery of cognitive tests did not provide a definitive answer, and by his own admission, the St. Mary’s County resident “was in a pretty dark place.”

He was later diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, finding help and hope through counseling and a community support group. Michael now tells his story publicly, knowing — over time — he will lose the ability to respond to his environment, to carry on a conversation and, eventually, to control movement.

We previously wrote an op-ed last year for Maryland Matters, “Building an Infrastructure for Alzheimer’s,” about initial steps to address the needs of our state’s residents with Alzheimer’s and other dementia. Today, we are grateful to Gov. Larry Hogan for enacting legislation to build awareness about Alzheimer’s and improve the quality of Maryland’s long-term care.

This includes Chapters 479 and 480 of 2021, sponsored by Sen. Pamela Beidle and Del. Lisa Belcastro, which requires the Maryland Department of Health to adopt revised regulations for assisted living facilities (including, specifically, Alzheimer’s special care units) on or before Dec. 1, 2022.

Our progress to advance a policy agenda that aids the more than 110,000 Marylanders with Alzheimer’s and other dementia continues. We appreciate Maryland’s Virginia I. Jones Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Council (the ADRD Council), which — in its new State Plan for Alzheimer’s and other dementias — recommends a dementia-specific staffer at the Maryland Department of Health. We thank House Speaker Pro Tem Sheree Sample-Hughes and Sen. Malcolm Augustine for their legislation (HB166/SB27) which requires the creation of this position at MDH, to work across agencies, on an issue Maryland has more than $1.2 billion in Medicaid costs alone.

We urge Gov. Hogan to sign this bill into law.

We are charting an important, coordinated path forward for Maryland.

We thank LifeSpan, representing Maryland’s assisted living facilities, for its support of HB636/SB531. This bill, based on the work of Maryland’s Oversight Committee for the Quality of Care in Nursing Homes and Assisted Living Facilities, requires an in-depth study to improve the quality of care at Maryland’s small assisted living providers. This bill, also from Del. Belcastro and Sen. Beidle, has passed both chambers of the legislature, and we again ask for the governor’s support.

We also thank Del. Karen Lewis Young and Sen. Nancy King for their sponsorship of legislation which would mandate the creation a dementia caregiving navigation program at each of Maryland’s Area Agencies on Aging. This initiative, modeled after a similar program in Wisconsin, garnered 20 different co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle in its first year of consideration.

We move forward today with an extraordinary opportunity to help Marylanders.

In addition to the legislative agenda, we are thrilled that our state’s fiscal 2023 budget includes $3.5 million to “provide funding for enhanced Alzheimer’s services and research,” which will be impactful for Maryland communities. We thank the governor and legislative champions who made this possible, including Senate President Bill Ferguson, Senate Budget and Taxation Chair Guy Guzzone, Budget and Taxation Health and Human Services Subcommittee Chair Melony Griffith and Sen. Ron Young; along with House Speaker Adrienne Jones, House Appropriations Chair Maggie McIntosh, and Appropriations Health and Human Services Subcommittee Chair Kirill Reznik.

We could not be more excited to work in partnership with the Maryland Department of Health and the ADRD Council and chart a responsible path forward for these resources.

Maryland has long had an infrastructure to address many different diseases. Thanks to extraordinary investments in providing care for people living with HIV, Maryland now has just over 31,000 affected residents.

In late 2020, Gov. Hogan announced $94 million in funding for diabetes. The Maryland Department of Health’s Behavioral Health Administration does vital work for Marylanders with substance and mental health issues. Alzheimer’s and other dementia, a cognitive health issue, has had neither the funding nor the personnel to do the work that is possible.

That equation is evolving; we have an opportunity to build awareness and deliver help for Marylanders like Michael Razzi, and so many others, who are trying to understand and manage this cruel disease.