Date: October 1st, 2001
Promising new drugs are revolutionizing the treatment of cancer. But as so often happens, the federal bureaucracy has yet to catch up with scientific advances. As a result, millions of Americans may be denied potentially life-saving cancer drugs.
The reason? As bizarre as it sounds, it's because some of the new the cancer treatments are in the form of pills. That's right - pills that patients would swallow in the comfort and convenience of their own homes. Under current law, Medicare will not pay for oral cancer medications, only injectable medications given by physicians.
Until recently, traditional cancer treatments like chemotherapy were administered intravenously, done in hospitals or doctors' offices. Unfortunately, while the treatments kill cancer cells, they also kill healthy cells. That's what causes the devastating side effects like hair loss, nausea, and fatigue. But coming on the market is a new generation of "oral cancer therapies." These pills' more targeted approach is far less toxic, and produces fewer nasty side effects, than injections. These drugs have shown great promise in treating leukemia, breast and prostate cancer.
But these new drugs aren't cheap. A one-month supply of a typical new drug can cost up to $2,500. And because the drugs do not cure cancer, the drugs must be taken for life to keep the cancer at bay. Because cancer is predominantly a disease associated with aging, Medicare coverage for these cancer medications is essential. Medicare now covers more than 90 percent of current, injectable cancer treatments, but pays for only a fraction of the oral medications.
"This doesn't make any sense, and it needs to change," says Dwayne Howell, president and CEO of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Judy Orem, 57, is living proof of the new drugs' effectiveness. In December 1995, she was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, an aggressive bone marrow cancer. After enduring three years of debilitating Interferon treatments, she thought she'd come to the end of the line. "The doctors told me there was nothing more they could do," she says. But then she heard about clinical trials of a new cancer drug. She enrolled in the trial, made a remarkable recovery, and remains on the medication.
"If I were depending on Medicare to cover me, I wouldn't be alive today," Orem says. "I'd have died long ago."
While the 40 oral anti-cancer drugs currently on the market make up just five percent of available cancer treatments, researchers predict that figure will grow to at least 25 percent within a decade.
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) says this disparity must be corrected, "As cancer therapy moves more toward reliance on oral drugs, Medicare coverage policy must be updated to cover the new therapies." In May, she joined forces with Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) to co-sponsor the "Access to Cancer Therapies Act of 2001."
Rockefeller says, "The bill will help ensure that seniors and the disabled will have access to oral cancer drugs as a part of their Medicare benefit." To date, 23 senators have signed on as co-sponsors in support of the bill. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House by Rep. Deborah Pryce (R-Ohio). At last count, 207 members have agreed to be co-sponsors of that bill.
Some House and Senate leaders would prefer that the legislation be part of a comprehensive Medicare drug benefits package. However, most Hill watchers say it would be 2004 at the earliest before a comprehensive drug benefits plan could take effect.
Judy Orem says cancer patients can't afford to wait that long. "People are dying because they're not able to get these new drugs. They've used the ones Medicare covered, and they don't work. The longer they wait to approve this, the more people will die."
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
The Alliance along with some 40 patient advocacy organizations representing millions of American families and many more scientific and academic groups support Secretary Thompson's endorsement of this lifesaving research, and will urge Mr. Bush to be "pro-life" and allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research to continue. We urge you to:
- Write your local paper and encourage more news coverage on this discriminatory provision in Medicare and the chilling effects it has on patients. Draft up your own opinion and send it as a letter to the editor.
- Call, write, or E-mail your Senators and Representative, and urge them to support the Access to Cancer Therapies Act of 2001.
- Write or E-mail the White House to urge President Bush to sign legislation when it arrives on his desk.
- Share this article with friends and urge them to get involved in the national debate. The lives of millions of Americans - from birth to old age - depend upon it.