The past 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic have made people understand that their health and the health of their loved ones is the most important thing. Unfortunately, patients and family members affected by cancer, me included, have understood this fact for many years. Several years ago, CBS News conducted a poll and found that 54 percent of Americans say they or someone else in their immediate family has been diagnosed with cancer at some point. And we know this number continues to increase. Cancer affects all races, income levels, and demographics.
This disease has touched even President Joe Biden. As vice president under the Obama administration, Mr. Biden sadly lost his son, Beau, to brain cancer. During his visible mourning, then Vice President Biden promised the American people that he would “end cancer as we know it.” He even led the Cancer Moonshot Task Force under President Obama and started the Biden Cancer Initiative in 2017. Unfortunately, his Administration under the Department of Health and Human Services via Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has proposed significant cuts in cancer treatment funding.
CMS has proposed two massive financial cuts for cancer treatment, including an 8.75 percent cut to radiation therapy services in their 2022 Medicare physician Fee Schedule (MPFS) and a modification of the Radiation Oncology Model (RO) Model as part of the 2022 Hospital Outpatient Prospective Payment System (HOPPS) proposed rule. These cuts will significantly reduce the work done to cure cancer, but it will also guarantee treatment centers’ closures leaving cancer patients without care.
COVID-19 took the lives of over 700,000 Americans, but it also caused thousands of deaths due to tangential side effects, including missed cancer screenings. Many cancer patients were unable to get treatment during the pandemic. Physician’s offices, radiology, biopsies, and other procedures were postponed or limited for emergency cases. But this also meant that preventive and diagnostic exams were postponed too – necessary tools in the ongoing cancer fight.
Dr. Ned Sharpless, Director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, estimates there could be nearly 10,000 additional deaths over the next ten years due to delayed detection and treatment of breast and colon cancers. The only appropriate time to decrease cancer treatment funding is after we’ve cured cancer, but it is not very prudent during a global pandemic. These reductions will close the doors of many cancer treatment clinics, leaving patients without access to quality care, especially in rural communities and smaller towns across the USA.
When care centers close, patients are forced to drive hours for their treatments and procedures. And because they are undergoing treatment, they usually have family and friends drive them. Some patients have even forgone their morphine to drive themselves. According to a recent national survey by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), rural cancer patients typically spend 66% more time traveling each way to treatment than those who live in more urban areas.
These cuts will also disproportionately affect our vulnerable minority communities, who suffer at some of the highest rates for certain cancers. According to the American Cancer Society, Black Americans have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic group in the U.S. for most cancers. Black American women are 40 percent more likely to die of breast cancer than White women and are twice as likely to die if they are over 50 years of age.
Concerning cervical cancer, the mortality rates of cervical cancer have been declining for several years. However, Black women are still 80 percent more likely to die from this form of cancer than White women.
Every administration has laudable goals, and I hope putting a dent in rising cancer rates is one of the current administration’s aspirations. This administration should stay the course in the cancer fight and prevent these cuts from being implemented. American lives depend on it, especially those in our most vulnerable communities.
• Cherylyn Harley LeBon is a former Senior Counsel on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.