Sen. Roy Blunt ‘will be greatly missed’ for his work with Alzheimer’s, dementia
After 12 years representing Missouri in the U.S. Senate, Roy Blunt is stepping down, but not without leaving an indelible mark on health care.
“He’s been a fantastic supporter of all of the appropriations requests as well as some of the legislation we’ve championed. He’s going to be greatly missed by obviously the state of Missouri, but nationally by lots of folks inside the mental health community as well as in the Alzheimer’s Association,” said Jerry Dowell, VP of public policy for the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Missouri chapter.
In September, the National Institutes for Health dedicated a building to Blunt: The Roy Blunt Center for Alzheimer’s and Related Dementias Research in Bethesda, Maryland.
“Sen. Blunt’s support for NIH and Alzheimer’s research in particular has been instrumental to important progress in making this center possible,” said Dr. Lawrence Tabak, acting director for the NIH, during the dedication. “The naming of this facility recognizes him as an extraordinary leader and pays tribute to his unwavering commitment to speed progress in dementia research and care.”
In Blunt’s time as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, & Related Agencies, he secured seven consecutive funding increases for NIH.
In 2010, $450 million was allotted to Alzheimer’s and dementia research, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. In 2022, that amount was nearly $3.5 billion.
“Research is a thing that the federal government can do, and can do well, especially research that you can allocate to the states, who compete to make an argument as to why they should be the people looking at that area. I’m really pleased to see what we’ve been able to do there in the last eight years,” Blunt said.
A convergence of factors
Longtime Alzheimer’s Association volunteer and Nixa resident Marcia Rauwerdink has worked with Blunt since he became a senator in 2010. Rauwerdink is part of the Missouri contingent that visits Washington, D.C., for the annual Alzheimer’s Impact Movement Advocacy Forum, where the legislative advocacy arm of the Alzheimer’s Association meets with federal representatives to discuss research funding, among other issues.
AIM was formed around the same time Alzheimer’s began to see an increase in funding, but Rauwerdink insists it wasn’t the sole cause of the additional investment.
“This is really about things converging. You don’t have the kind of success that the Association has had with going from a ridiculously small amount of research funding to where we are by accident,” she said. “It’s never just one thing; that’s really life, right? It’s never just that (one thing).”
A personal connection
Rauwerdink recalled an AIM visit in 2013, when former U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore accompanied the Missouri group to visit Blunt. Moore had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease the previous year.
As the group spoke with Blunt’s legislative aide for health care, Rauwerdink said Moore and Blunt talked privately for awhile.
“In my opinion, that meeting changed everything — I don’t want to say changed everything in that he wasn’t supportive before, but he sort of became like, as passionate as Marcia, hell on wheels about getting more research funding,” Rauwerdink said.
According to a statement released after Moore’s death in 2021, the men always tried to work together in the House when they could.
“During the decade we served together in the House, Dennis Moore was always looking for ways to work together,” the statement said. “I also saw him many times when he would come by and visit in the Senate office as he and his family talked about the challenges of Alzheimer’s. Watching their courage as they dealt with this challenge was inspirational.”
‘He made a promise, and he kept it.’
In 2015, Blunt co-sponsored the largest increase in NIH research funding in over 10 years, which benefited a host of medical research, in addition to Alzheimer’s.
While she can’t remember if it was before or after Blunt posed for a group photo in a stairwell of the Russell Senate Office building, one thing will stick with Rauwerdink forever about that year’s visit.
Blunt stood in front of the group, looked up at them and said, “I promise you: You are going to get your funding request. I promise.”
He followed through.
Later, during a small celebration at the Springfield Alzheimer’s Association office, Rauwerdink introduced Blunt to the group.
“I came out and said, ‘I’ll never forget: You made a promise, and you delivered,’” she said, tearing up at the memory. “He made a promise, and he kept it.”
As Blunt prepares to step down, the question lingers: Who will take up his mantle?
“It’s hard to replace someone who has been a statesman like Sen. Blunt has been,” Dowell said.
There are still champions for Alzheimer’s and dementia funding in Congress, like Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), as well as another generation.
“We have some young up-and-comers who are kind of picking up the mantle, and clearly understand the work that still needs to be done,” Rauwerdink said. “Even though the man on the horse at the front is going to be leaving, we believe that there is still a very strong legion of support will be there, and that there are people in place who are picking that cause up and have already sponsored lots of legislation.”
And will Blunt continue to support health care and research as a private citizen?
“I’ve spent too much time and too much focus on health care research and mental health to not continue to be interested in those areas, and I will,” Blunt said.