Greater access to oral cancer treatment drugs needed

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

Thumbnail for 6447By: Michael Heller, M.D.


Since moving to Asheville in 1990, I have had the privilege and challenge of providing cancer care to the wonderful people of Western North Carolina. This has included towns and cities such as Asheville, Clyde, Franklin, Lenoir, Murphy and Sylva. So, in addition to my extensive medical training, I feel that I have acquired a fairly significant understanding about what it takes to deliver cancer care in a challenging area of our state.

For many, getting diagnosed and treated for cancer is a major challenge that may not be experienced in other parts of the state. Getting patients to enter the primary care medical system that can result in preventive measures and early diagnosis is a beginning, and one that needs attention. However, once diagnosed with cancer, other challenges emerge. The culture, tradition, problems with transportation, lack of health insurance, geographic barriers, weather and fear may all become barriers. Once those are overcome, entering into and sustaining effective treatment modes are essential. Travel to comprehensive treatment centers can be as difficult as space exploration, and, once there, obtaining access to appropriate treatment can mean the difference between life and death. It is important that everyone is able to gain access to the best tools that modern medicine can provide; living in a certain part of the state shouldn’t make a difference.

Cancer treatment can include surgery, radiation, and chemo therapies — individually or in combination. As treatment measures have evolved, we have acquired specialized tools and techniques, so the “one size fits all treatment” is being abandoned. One of the emerging tools in our medical arsenal has become oral treatments. This involves daily taking pills rather than spending hours connected to an IV. Not only more convenient and less costly for providing care, for some cancers it may be the only method of treatment. And, it is quickly becoming the future of cancer treatment. Last year alone, more than half of the cancer drugs approved by the FDA were in oral form. Losing time from work for the patient and family is prevented, and valuable medical resources at facilities can be utilized for other patients.

All of this makes sense for treatment, for optimal patient care, and also for health care and individual costs. However, due to current payment policies of insurance companies, getting a daily pill or pills for treatment can cost the individual significantly more than if they spent the day hooked up to an IV in a hospital or infusion center. Why? Outdated policies are responsible.

In 2013, the N.C. House of Representatives passed a bill— by a large majority, HB 609, that sought to make oral chemotherapy treatment as financially accessible as IV therapies. The N.C. Senate was not able to consider this legislation before they adjourned. Now, the state Legislature is back in session, and the Senate has an opportunity to protect cancer patients by enacting HB 609. By doing so, North Carolina will join 33 other states and the District of Columbia in establishing parity and fairness.

Living in Western North Carolina (and other parts of the state) should not be a detriment to receiving the best and most appropriate care. Access to these more effective drugs is especially desirable for our people and is within reach with the proper response by our elected officials.

I urge the North Carolina Senate and the leadership of our state to make these treatment options a right for everyone. Please consider and allow House Bill 609 to move forward, and let North Carolina become the 34th state to make cancer treatment equally available.