Money needed to help fight cancer

To some people it seemed like a simple matter, a genuine no-brainer:

Have insurance companies place oral chemotherapy on the same level as the intravenous cancer drug treatment.

But when it comes to pushing for positive change in Nevada, few things are as simple as they seem. And so the state’s largely volunteer American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network went to work at the 2013 Legislature.

“When we think of a person receiving chemotherapy our mental picture is usually of a patient with an IV in their arm, sitting in an outpatient infusion center, where they must remain for hours,” oncology nurse Carla Brutico told members of the Nevada Assembly Commerce & Labor Committee on May 10. “Today and going forward, we can visualize many of these same patients taking a chemotherapy pill on a specific schedule at home, at work, attending a family picnic, or on vacation.”

But not if the oral treatment continued to be covered as part of the insurance prescription benefit instead of the major medical coverage. This was a legislative change that good conscience and common sense demanded — even in Nevada.

Insurance companies commonly fully covered intravenous chemo treatment, but paid out bills for oral chemo at a lower rate. Senate Bill 266, legislation sponsored by Sen. Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, sought cost parity between the two forms of treatment with a $100-per-month co-pay provision. The legislation found a vocal ally in Sen. Joyce Woodhouse, D-Henderson, who only a few months earlier had lost a sister to brain cancer.

Brutico, an experienced nurse who worked with ACS CAN, added, “Some erroneously believe that patients can ‘choose’ to take an oral chemo instead of an IV chemo. This treatment is not a choice of convenience. These new drugs have no IV counterparts. The oral chemo drugs are different small molecules that work inside the cell.”

By the time Brutico and others finished educating legislators, failing to do the right thing was out of the question. Other states were ahead of Nevada on this issue, but the ACS CAN army started raising its voice and found, at least that time, allies from both sides of the political aisle.

In the end, SB 266 sailed through to Gov. Brian Sandoval’s desk. The new law is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2015.

“Many of the most important decisions about cancer are made outside the doctor’s office,” the group’s Grassroots Relationship Manager Cindy Roragen said. “They’re made by our lawmakers, our elected leaders. ACS CAN is a committed group of volunteers that are urging those lawmakers to make and keep cancer a priority.”

Not all the nonprofit group’s lobbying victories are as swift and clear-cut as the oral chemo parity bill. Some issues get buried under the state’s libertarian business traditions and by its powerhouse lobbyists. ACS CAN continues to work on multiple fronts to promote legislation focusing on everything from unregulated tanning booths linked to increased skin cancer to Nevada’s slowly evolving smoking policies.

With so much work to do, ACS CAN receives much of its funding from its annual Purses & Pearls – Ties & Treasures event, which this year takes place at 6 p.m. Nov. 19 at Cili Restaurant at 5160 Las Vegas Blvd. South. For ticket information, go to www.acscan.org/action/nv. Purses & Pearls helps ACS CAN continue to address cancer-related issues before the Legislature and throughout the state.

Regular readers of this column know I have some experience with this subject, but the fact is every family is touched by cancer. About 13,000 state residents will be diagnosed with cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society.

The truth is simple enough. Every Nevada family stands to benefit from an enlightened public policy, updated laws, and an informed Legislature on this issue that’s part of everyone’s life.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.