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Medicare changes would jeopardize cancer patients

Patt_Je_Busi_CO_Feb_2015_450x300Former President Jimmy Carter announced to the world last summer that he had been diagnosed with melanoma that had spread to his liver and brain. Just months later, after receiving a groundbreaking, personalized treatment known as immunotherapy, his cancer was in remission. I was fortunate enough to attend President Carter’s Sunday school class this May in his hometown of Plains, Georgia, and can tell you he is doing fantastic! As an oncologist in Nashville, this kind of story is why I decided to make treating cancer patients my life’s work.

Many of the more than 1.6 million Americans who will be diagnosed with cancer this year might not have the same options. Last month, Washington bureaucrats with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced plans to alter Medicare Part B drug benefits for patients with cancer.

These changes would replace the personalized care many patients receive with a “cookie-cutter” approach, though there is little evidence this will work. The government says the changes will increase the value of the care cancer patients receive and save money, but in reality, the changes will be damaging to both patients and their doctors.

There are more than 200 different types of cancers, and every patient responds differently to the care they receive. The ability to personalize treatment has led to unprecedented survival rates for Americans battling cancer, all of which will be in jeopardy if Medicare switches to this more impersonal approach.

Oncologists are committed to doing everything they can to help their patients recover from a life-threatening diagnosis, and it’s insulting to be told we prescribe treatments for profits, not healing. The changes could force community oncology clinics like ours — places where the majority of Americans with cancer are treated — to close, sending patients to hospitals that cost 50 percent more for the same treatment, and are often far from their homes.

The damage the changes could inflict on the average patient and physician is bad enough, but it’s likely that these changes won’t save money, either. A similar experiment from the nation’s largest health care insurer, chronicled in the peer-reviewed scientific Journal of Oncology Practice, ended up tripling spending on cancer drugs.

To be sure, we know that the cost of cancer care must be addressed. That is why we’ve been working with the government, insurance companies and patient advocates to come up with ways to do so that don’t sacrifice patient care to save a quick buck. In contrast, the government conjured up this plan without evidence that it will be effective while preserving high-quality care.

I have discussed our concerns with Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn and she has been very supportive. I urge all of Tennessee’s senators and congressional representatives to help us say no to government control of cancer care and yes to finding thoughtful solutions that help every cancer patient receive the personalized treatment they need to beat their diagnosis. Tennessee cancer patients depend on it.

Jeff Patton, M.D., is the CEO of Tennessee Oncology.