An Oregon woman suffering from lung cancer was notified by the state-run Oregon Health Plan that their policy would not cover her life-extending cancer drug, telling her the health plan would cover doctor-assisted suicide instead.
Barbara Wagener discovered her lung cancer had recurred last month, the Register-Guard said. Her oncologist prescribed a drug called Tarceva, which could slow the cancer growth and extend her life.
The Oregon Health Plan notified Wagner that it would not cover the drug, but it would cover palliative care, which it said included assisted suicide.
“Treatment of advanced cancer that is meant to prolong life, or change the course of this disease, is not a covered benefit of the Oregon Health Plan,” said the letter Wagner received from LIPA, the Eugene company that administers the Oregon Health Plan in Lane County.
“I think it’s messed up,” Wagner said. She said she was particularly upset because the letter said doctor-assisted suicide would be covered.
“To say to someone, we’ll pay for you to die, but not pay for you to live, it’s cruel,” she said. “I get angry. Who do they think they are?”
A doctor appealed to Genentech, the company that markets Tarceva in the U.S., to cover Wagner’s medication. On Monday Wagner was told the company would cover the drug treatment for a year, after which she could re-apply for the drug.
“I am just so thrilled,” Wagner said. “I am so relieved and so happy.”
According to the Register-Guard, Oregon oncologists say they have seen a change in state health policy, saying their Oregon Health Plan patients with advanced cancer are no longer covered for chemotherapy if it is considered comfort care.
“It doesn’t adhere to the standards of care set out in the oncology community,” said Dr. John Caton, an oncologist at Willamette Valley Cancer Center. He said many studies have found that chemotherapy in a palliative setting decreases pain and time spent in the hospital and increases quality of life.
Officials of LIPA and the state Health Services Commission, which sets policy for the Oregon Health Plan, say they have not changed their coverage of recurrent cancer patients, but have only clarified the rules.