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Senate committee approves bill to cover oral anti-cancer drugs

New Hampshire Sunday News

March 16. 2015 7:07PM

A Senate committee has approved a bill that would require insurance companies to cover oral anti-cancer drugs the same way they cover intravenous chemotherapy treatments.

Senate Bill 137 comes up for a vote in the full Senate on Thursday.

More than a dozen advocacy groups and health-care organizations submitted written and oral testimony supporting the measure last week to the Senate Commerce Committee.

Supporters noted 35 other states and the District of Columbia have enacted similar “chemotherapy parity” legislation, designed to control out-of-pocket costs for cancer patients.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 137, told committee members at last week’s hearing that it was an honor to “literally fight for the lives of people in New Hampshire.”

Bradley noted while IV chemotherapy is covered under most insurance policies as a medical benefit, oral medications typically are covered under pharmacy benefits. And because of differences in co-pays on some plans, he said, “It’s simply out of reach for many people.”

Mike Rollo, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network, said the bill is simply about “updating New Hampshire insurance laws so they keep up with science.”

However, Heidi Kroll, a lobbyist for America’s Health Insurance Plans, a national trade organization representing health insurance carriers, spoke against the bill.

She said AHIP has sympathy for those facing the high cost of oral anti-cancer drugs. However, she said, “Our concern, and in our opinion the real problem, is really the often exclusive market positions that are held by the drug manufacturers and specialty drug manufacturers, which enable them to charge really exorbitant prices for specialty drugs, including but not limited to oral chemotherapy.”

Kroll said the bill as written would have a negative impact on small businesses. And she said it could set a precedent “that would in turn put even greater upward pressure on health-care costs.”

She asked lawmakers to refer the bill for further study or to include a requirement for cost transparency from drug makers.

However, Bradley cited a study that showed covering oral anti-cancer medications in the same manner as IV drugs would add at most about a dollar a year to premium costs.

“For those people that this is a life-saving cure, I would argue it’s a pretty small increase in the premiums that the rest of us pay,” said Bradley, whose sister died of cancer. “When you’ve watched cancer just squeeze the life out of a loved one ... this is a very small price to pay.”

Dr. Jeanna Walsh, a Londonderry oncologist, spoke in support of Senate Bill 137. She said some of the most promising new treatments are oral medications that target particular types of cancer.

But she said she’s seen situations in which patients have elected to use an inferior IV treatment because of the cost. “And that’s troubling to all of us as oncologists,” she said.Don Parrish’s wife, Rachel, was just 42 years old when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Thirteen years later, the cancer was back and had spread to her lung, but she continued to battle for nearly eight years, he told the Sunday News.

They were lucky, said Parrish, who lives in Bedford. As a state employee, he had good insurance; his wife also was able to get into clinical trials for two different oral anti-cancer drugs out of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon.

Rachel Parrish died two years ago.

What he’d like lawmakers to understand, Parrish said, is that caregivers would pay any price for the medicine that might save their loved ones. And in many cases, the best drug is an oral medication, he said.

“I would say let’s don’t put the burden on the cancer patient and the cancer patient’s family to sort this out,” he said.

“Give the cancer patients the drug that’s going to be the most effective in treating their cancer instead of putting them through the ordeal of having to fight for their lives and then have to fight for the drug that’s the best option.”To him, he said, Senate Bill 137 is “a no-brainer that will take some steps to level the playing field for the cancer patient in terms of their hope for the future.”

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