Bill aims to eliminate costly difference between oral, IV chemotherapy for Utah patients

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 19 2013 7:25 p.m. MST

Kellie Gubler, of St. George, looks at her husband, Dave, following a discussion of SB189 at the Capitol on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013. The bill aims to provide parity for oral chemotherapy drugs by requiring insurers that already cover intravenous therapy to cover the pill form at similar rates.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Like most people given a cancer diagnosis, Kellie Gubler wasn't expecting it.

The St. George wife and mother of three also didn't expect the 11 rounds of chemotherapy, more than 30 doses of radiation, full mastectomy, seven surgeries and hormone therapy that has followed in the nearly three years since stage 3C breast cancer first reared its ugly head in 2010.

Also unexpected, the cancer returned last August, but as a stage 4 metastatic type, affecting her spine, lungs and other organs. With it, the mutations have absorbed a little more of her typically upbeat spirit.

Each procedure, while emotionally and physically degrading, has given Gubler, 36, more time with her family, including her children, ages 11, 8 and 5. Time is something she is more grateful for every day.

"They're all I've got," she said. "Without my husband and kids, what would I be fighting for?"

And fight she has.

Doctors have given Gubler some hope in the form of an oral chemotherapy medication that provides fewer painful side effects than the intravenous type that has been slowly breaking her down over the years.

The problem, though, is that because drugs are traditionally covered under a health insurance plan's pharmacy benefit and IV therapy is considered a medical care benefit, the insurance portions of payment are drastically different for the two methods.

Payment models are then prohibitive for some doctors.

"If I have two treatments that I think are similar and one is expensive for the patient and the other isn't, I'd recommend the one that isn't going to cripple them financially," said Dr. John Ward, an oncologist and professor of medicine at the Huntsman Cancer Institute.

Ward said every patient has a different outlook on life, but cost must be taken into consideration at some level.

"Other alternatives are likewise expensive," he said. "Sometimes the same drugs, given by vein, are also expensive."

Ward said, in some situations, it's probably poor care not to give the oral agent, as some medications are fine-tuned to better target specific types of cancers.

And, he said, more and more oral therapies are coming available with advances in technology and cancer research.

The Utah Legislature is considering a bill that aims to provide parity for oral chemotherapy drugs. Sponsored by Sen. Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, SB189 would require insurers that already cover intravenous chemotherapy to cover the pill form at similar rates.

Bramble said it is not a mandate for more coverage, just an attempt at fair coverage for cancer patients.

Travis Winn, executive director for Utah Health Plans, said increasing coverage for some patients might harm the relationship insurance companies have with their contractual customers, as the cost of a prescription drug benefit could increase.

From the financial standpoint of the industry, increasing the pharmacy benefit would eventually mean more people will lose coverage, Winn said.

However, his claims could not be substantiated Tuesday. He said the industry is compiling data for projected losses if the bill passes, but Bramble pointed out that states that have already adopted such parity have not been able to show any erosion in the existing insurance markets. 

In recent years, 20 states and the District of Columbia have enacted anti-cancer medication parity laws, according to the Association of Community Cancer Centers, an advocacy organization with thousands of professional members across the county. Twelve more introduced similar legislation in 2012. Congress has also considered the issue.

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