Cancer treatments have evolved; insurance has not

Jill Tanner

I'm not afraid of much. Ovarian cancer has taught me that I can't be. I've been battling this disease in multiple forms for nearly a decade.

But what does scare me is what I would do without the ability to cover the cost of the medication -- what's known as a PARP inhibitor -- that is keeping my cancer in check and sustaining my survival.

Sadly, it's a dilemma facing far too many cancer patients. I'm not talking about people who don't have insurance. Even those who think that they have great health insurance face this issue and most don't realize it affects them until they need treatment.

The crux of the issue is outdated insurance policies. As cancer treatments have evolved, insurance policies haven't kept up. This is because treatments like chemotherapy that come in an IV drip bag are covered under a plan's medical benefit, whereas oral treatments that come in pill form are covered under a plan's prescription drug coverage. This distinction may mean the difference of thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs to the patient.

This is problematic because many patients are now routinely prescribed oral cancer treatment medications, like the PARP inhibitors I am taking, either instead of, or in combination with, IV chemotherapy. PARPs block an enzyme -- poly ADP ribose polymerase (or PARP) -- that cancer cells use to repair themselves and grow. When we can stop that growth, we can stop the cancer.

Treatment advances like PARPs are allowing many patients to live longer and healthier lives, experiencing cancer as more like a chronic disease than a terminal illness. But these medication options are useless if patients can't access them.

That's why I'm thrilled to see my hometown Rep. Brett Guthrie try to close gaps in coverage and help bring equality to all cancer treatments by sponsoring the "Cancer Drug Parity Act." Under the legislation, health insurance coverage of cancer treatments must be equitable when it comes to out-of-pocket costs to patients, regardless of how the treatment is administered.

Thankfully, most states -- including Kentucky -- have enacted state-level oral parity legislation to protect patients. But state legislation alone isn't enough, because millions of Americans have federally regulated health insurance plans, so it takes federal legislation like that proposed by Rep. Guthrie to fix the cost disparity.

I'm so grateful that PARP inhibitors exist -- they weren't yet available when I was first diagnosed. My oncologist can now explore treatment options that simply didn't exist a few years ago, but these new therapies are of little value if patients aren't able to afford them.

Recently, like many patients, I've had reoccurrence of my disease.

Despite that, I made a point to join my fellow advocates with Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance (OCRA) and travel to Washington, D.C., to advocate for this legislation this past March. I had just finished chemo and looked the part.

It was important to me to have these policy leaders see firsthand what cancer looks like and understand the urgency of lifting access barriers to expand treatment options. I urge all of the Kentucky congressional delegations to join Guthrie in supporting the Cancer Drug Parity Act.

Jill Tanner is an eight-year ovarian and six-year breast cancer survivor who advocates for the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance. She lives in Owensboro.

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