FILE - Florida state Rep. Scott Plakon and Rep. Matt Willhite

Florida state Reps. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, (left) and Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, (right) present a bill concerning Alzheimer's disease during session Wednesday, March 27, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla.

(The Center Square) – Florida will create a statewide dementia director to coordinate policies and programs for 580,000 people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and their 1.1 million unpaid caregivers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 835, which creates a dementia director position within the Florida Department of Elder Affairs (DOEA) but does not specify a salary.

HB 835, co-sponsored by Reps. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, and Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, passed both chambers unanimously and goes into effect July 1. It was one of 42 bills adopted by lawmakers during the 2020 session DeSantis signed last week.

The Senate version was co-sponsored by Sens. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and Senate Minority Leader Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville.

“This is a big win for our Florida seniors,” Alzheimer’s Association Florida Vice President of Public Policy Michelle Branham said in a release. “Gov. DeSantis has made it clear that Alzheimer’s is a top priority under the State Health Improvement Plan and this piece of legislation is critical for its success.”

The Alzheimer’s Association, based in Chicago, estimates 5.5 million Americans age 65 and older are living with the disease, and 7.1 million will be living with it by 2025, a 29 percent increase.

The Alzheimer’s Association projects Florida, which has the nation’s second-highest prevalence of the disease with 580,000 residents diagnosed, will see its number of residents diagnosed with the disease increase by one-third to 720,000 by 2025, nearly doubling the cost to the state’s Medicaid program to $3.4 billion.

The Alzheimer’s Association drafted the bill. The dementia director will assist DOEA’s Alzheimer’s Disease Advisory Committee with development of a state plan, support state memory disorder clinics, orchestrate public education, coordinate dementia research programs and collect data on the effect of Alzheimer’s disease on the state.

The director will lead the committee in submitting a required annual report to DOEA, including recommendations on Alzheimer’s disease policy, state-funded Alzheimer’s disease efforts and proposed updates to Florida’s Alzheimer’s Disease Initiative (ADI).

ADI manages the state’s memory disorder clinics and its Silver Alert and Brain Bank programs, while coordinating case management, procurement of specialized equipment and caregiver counseling through the 11 Area Agencies on Aging.

During the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers approved $3.8 million for ADI and allocated $5.5 million for DOEA’s Community Care for the Elderly Program.

Lawmakers also earmarked $5 million in continued funding for the Ed and Ethel Moore Alzheimer's Research Program and $1.5 million for research by the University of Florida Health Center’s Center for Translational Research in Neurodegenerative Disease.

Much of the money allocated to Alzheimer’s will support an estimated 1.1 million – often family members – who provide unpaid daily care for the dementia-afflicted.

Their estimated $16.13 billion in unpaid care, which could near $24 billion by 2025, mitigates the financial burden on Florida's health care system but imposes costs on the general economy by diverting efforts from other pursuits.

Plakon, whose first wife, Susie, developed Alzheimer’s and died from it in 2018, praised DeSantis for creating the position despite budget constraints that could force him to veto as much as $1 billion from the $93.2 billion budget lawmakers adopted in March.

“The governor has been all-in when it comes to helping families struggling with Alzheimer’s,” Plakon said. “There are 580,000 people with Alzheimer’s right now in the state of Florida. When you count caregivers and people in their direct orbit helping them, it is over a million Floridians are affected by it.”

Plakon thanked fellow legislators for their overwhelming bipartisan support.

“Helping people with this terrible disease is as bipartisan as anything I’ve ever seen,” he said.