- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2003

We all know medicines that are beneficial on their own can turn lethal when taken in the wrong combination.Like a toxic mix of prescription drugs, provisions from various senators and representatives have poisoned the plans for a Medicare prescription drug benefit.Originally conceived to providea prescription drug benefit for all seniors, the bills passed in the House and Senate contain a provision that will end up doing more harm than good.

One of the worst examples of these so-called poison pills is a provision buried deep in both the House and Senate versions of the legislation.It allows for a $16-billion cut in Medicare coverage for cancer treatments over the next 10 years.These cuts are cast in the form of reductions in reimbursement rates for chemotherapies and other common treatments.This means that community cancer centers that provide outpatient services will lose an essential source of revenue.The proposed cuts could even cause these clinics to close — something that would not only affect seniors, but all patients in a community who are fighting cancer.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology recently conducted a survey of doctors and reported that if these proposed cuts become law, most physicians would limit the number of cancer patients they treat; and, nearly one-in-five said they would stop treating Medicare patients altogether.These changes would not only inconvenience cancer patients — they would jeopardize their chances of survival and recovery.

We are two senators from different political parties, different states, and oftentimes, different opinion.But we share a determination not to do anything that will undermine the national commitment that transcends the political divide to win the war on cancer.

It’s a war that has seen truly amazing progress since the Medicare Program’s enactment in 1965. At that time, the term “cancer survivor” had little meaning; the disease was a virtual death sentence and treatment for it meant traveling long distances to specialized centers, repeated hospitalization and debilitating side effects.

Technological and medical advances have truly revolutionized cancer treatment. Today, 80 percent of cancer treatment is delivered on an outpatient basis in community cancer centers.And, hundreds of “satellite centers” save patients from having to drive hundreds of miles for their daily dose of chemotherapy. Just last month, the National Cancer Institute reported that mortality rates from the four most common types of cancer — breast, colorectal, lung and prostate — seem to be in decline.

It’s a war that can and will be won, if policy-makers acknowledge and promote what’s working.Our sure and steady progress essentially comes down to three things: earlier and improved diagnosis; newer, less toxic and more effective forms of treatment; and, much better access to cancer care in our own communities.And, that’s precisely what’s placed in such danger by the current versions of House and Senate Medicare legislation.

Last week, nearly a thousand cancer patients and their family members, nurses and physicians gathered on Capitol Hill to tell Congress that comprehensive cancer care is vital to their chances of survival.We heard voices from states throughout the country that urged us to ensure continued cancer-care funding in the final Medicare prescription drug bill.Let me assure you that we’re listening — and, we won’t stand for a final combined version of the House and Senate legislation that comes with poison pills that do more harm than good to some of our nation’s Medicare beneficiaries.

Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, chairs the Senate Cancer Coalition. Sen. Bill Nelson is a Florida Democrat.They both serve on the Commerce and Foreign Relations committees.

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