- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

Health Care

Maryland officials this week stepped up their public-awareness campaign for a little-used program that provides a free chemotherapy drug to poor cancer patients.

Maryland Attorney J. Joseph Curran Jr. yesterday said at a Baltimore press conference that the state would increase its publicity of a 10-month-old program that gives out free vials of Taxol, a prescription drug that primarily treats ovarian, breast and non-small-cell lung cancers.

Mr. Curran said he was concerned no Maryland cancer patients have participated in the program, which gives out Taxol to low-income cancer patients.

A limited supply of Taxol, which is made by pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., is free for patients who need the drug but have no access to private health insurance or federal health insurance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

So far, more than 700 vials, which cost an average $1,200, have been used in 24 states, primarily by patients in New Mexico and Nevada.

But no patients in Maryland or the District have received the free treatments, according to RxHope Inc., a Clinton, N.J., patient-assistance Internet initiative that is handling the program.

Fifteen patients in Virginia have received the drug, said Emily Lucier, spokeswoman for the state’s attorney general’s office. Ms. Lucier said the state is developing an awareness campaign for the program before the supply ceases.

“The challenge is getting the information out that help is on the way,” Mr. Curran said. He did not give specific plans for the public-awareness campaign.

Meredyth Smith Andrus, who works in the antitrust division of Mr. Curran’s office, said publicity about the program since it started in late August has been relatively sparse.

“We didn’t know at first how best to publicize this and how fast patients would go through the supply,” Ms. Andrus said, calling the prescription-drug giveaway the “first of its kind in Maryland.”

RxHope, which is partially funded by a Washington pharmaceutical trade association, also worried some states would immediately monopolize the Taxol supply, said Chief Executive Anthony Maris.

“We didn’t want the program to catch on really fast in Florida before Oregon even became aware of it,” Mr. Maris said.

The program is an addition to a $55 million, 2003 settlement from an antitrust lawsuit. The lawsuit concerning Taxol was brought against Bristol-Myers by Maryland, Ohio and Florida on behalf of the rest of the states.

The lawsuit said lower-cost, generic versions of Taxol were delayed in arriving on the market because of invalid patents claimed by Bristol-Myers.

Bristol-Myers agreed to provide 13,000 vials of Taxol, worth an estimated $7 million to $10 million, to federally approved health care facilities for poor cancer patients nationwide.

Mr. Maris said he has no projection of when RxHope will run out of the free drugs and end the program. The company typically receives 50 to 80 Taxol requests weekly from doctors.

The “Health Care” column runs every Friday. Call Marguerite Higgins at 202/636-4892 or e-mail her at mhiggins@washingtontimes.com.

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