By DOUGLAS BLAYNEY, MD
Amid hundreds of amendments offered in the health care reform debate, there is a non-partisan, non-controversial gem that will both help patients and speed the search for new cures to deadly diseases.
Senators Sherrod Brown [D-OH] and Kay Bailey Hutchison [R-TX] have proposed an amendment that would encourage patients with life-threatening diseases or conditions to participate in clinical trials by requiring private insurers to cover patients’ routine care. It is essential that the Senate pass this amendment as part of health care reform.
As a cancer physician, I can speak to the benefits of clinical trials in my field of oncology. Virtually every advance in cancer prevention, screening, and treatment over the last 40 years can be traced directly to clinical trials – colonoscopies; curative treatment for testicular cancer; improved survival for most pediatric cancers; chemotherapy after surgery to prevent recurrence; new personalized therapies that target specific characteristics of cancer cells; and symptom management. Thanks primarily to the knowledge gained through clinical trials, today two-thirds of cancer patients survive at least five years after diagnosis, compared with only half in the 1970s.
Yet, just 3 to 5 percent of adult cancer patients participate in clinical trials. While there are many reasons for this startlingly low percentage, one of the most significant is tackled by Senators Brown’s and Hutchison’s amendment: the lack of guaranteed insurance coverage. Some insurers refuse to cover any care costs once a patient enrolls on a trial – whether they arise from treating the cancer or from the cancer itself – as if these costs wouldn’t be incurred if the patient weren’t being treated for cancer.
The Senators’ amendment establishes a federal standard prohibiting private insurers from discriminating against individuals with life-threatening diseases who choose to participate in a clinical trial. It also prohibits insurers from denying coverage for routine care that would otherwise be provided if an individual was not enrolled in a clinical trial – such as x-rays, blood tests, and physician and hospital charges. Any state with laws that go above and beyond this proposed federal standard would be permitted to keep that stronger standard.
My organization, the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), which represents more than 27,000 physicians who care for people living with cancer, strongly supports this amendment. It will ensure that more patients will have access to potentially effective new treatments, while advancing the search for new cures to cancer and other life-threatening diseases. We hope that Senate leadership will bring it to the floor and vote yes.
In just a few years, cancer will be the leading cause of death in the United States, and will strike nearly half of us. We urgently need new cures. Supporting participation in clinical trials is an essential step that will benefit us all.