Clinical Trials Can Save Cancer Patients' Lives (Rep. Deborah Pryce)

Somewhere in America right now, inside a laboratory or hospital, might sit a cure for cancer -- a drug or therapy currently being researched as part of a cancer clinical trial.  Clinical trials represent the final testing stage for medications, therapies and treatments before they are approved for widespread use, and are being performed by state-of-the art research hospitals and oncology centers all across the U.S.  And just about everything we now know about cancer and other diseases was derived from clinical trials.

In clinical trials, patients are matched with new drugs and treatments, and many of these patients show dramatic improvement in their fight against this dreaded disease.  This year, the American Cancer Society suggests that more than 1.4 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer, yet only 3% of them will enroll in the trial.  This begs the question:  why wouldn’t more cancer patients jump at this opportunity to beat cancer or prolong their lives?  Simply stated, many fear that their insurance health plan will deny coverage of their routine care if they do.

In a recent study, 60% of patients cited the prospects of losing their insurer’s routine care coverage as a major reason for not enrolling in a clinical trial.  Such is the life and death, Catch-22 decision facing countless Americans -- abstain from what could be a life-prolonging treatment in fear of losing their health plan coverage, or enroll in a clinical trial and suffer the financial devastation of being forced to pay for all routine care out of pocket.

In response to this problem, I was joined this week by Representatives Lois Capps (D-Calif.), Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), and Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) -- all fellow co-chairs of the House Cancer Caucus -- in introducing the bipartisan Access to Cancer Clinical Trials Act (ACCTA).  ACCTA will ensure that cancer patients and their caregivers can use their valuable time to fight the disease instead of their health plan, and facilitate greater enrollment in groundbreaking clinical trials all across the U.S.  ACCTA would require health plans to continue to pay for routine care costs when one of their plan members enrolls in a cancer clinical trial.

Clinical trials are mutually beneficial.  The patient is paired with a drug or therapy that could prolong or even save their life; the researcher is matched with additional subjects to verify the efficacy of their procedure, and if proven effective, bring it to market for global application more quickly.  Currently, the lack of patients enrolled in clinical trials has undermined our progress in the fight against cancer and cost many cancer sufferers their only shot at survival.

For evidence that clinical trials work for patient and medical progress alike, we need look no further than clinical trials for pediatric cancer.  While a mere 3% of adults enter clinical trials, nearly 90% of children are enrolled and with astonishing results:  by treating children in clinical trials, researchers have increased the cancer cure rate for children from less than 10% in the 1950s to its current level of nearly 80%.  Further, because researchers can obtain data from more patients, the effectiveness of procedures can be assessed more quickly and new treatments for pediatric cancer are developed hundreds of times faster.  Why the disparity between clinical trial enrollment rates between adult and children?  Largely, it results from the fact that pediatric oncologists and researchers consider clinical trials to be an essential part of the standard of pediatric care, an aggressive attitude lacking in adult cancer care.

ACCTA is not an unfunded mandate on insurers -- health plans are not being mandated to accept new patients, and they will not required to cover additional procedures, the cost of the drug or device being tested, or pay for the research-related costs.  Rather, they will simply be prohibited from denying routine coverage of their premium paying patients who enroll in what could be a life prolonging clinical study.  Further, numerous studies have shown that ACCTA will not drive up health care costs -- patients participating in clinical studies are no more or no less likely to have additional routine health care costs.

I am proud of this bill, of its bipartisan support, but most importantly, I am emboldened by the hope it can provide for the million and a half Americans who will be diagnosed with cancer this year -- by making cancer clinical trials an accessible option for those suffering from the disease, we will turn more cancer patients into cancer survivors.