Blood cancer patients deserve equal access to the cure

Blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma are serious and deadly diseases faced by too many Americans. Every three minutes, someone is diagnosed with a blood cancer. Depending on the severity of the diagnosis, a cellular therapy transplant—which includes donated bone marrow, cord blood, or blood stem cells, also known as peripheral blood stem cells— can cure these dangerous forms of cancer. Unfortunately, 70 percent of patients do not have a fully matched donor in their family. They depend on the National Marrow Donor Program®/Be The Match®. Because current Medicare policy does not adequately reimburse cellular therapy transplants, older patients diagnosed with blood cancer face barriers to accessing lifesaving treatments.

Many donors help save the lives of their loved ones by giving to a family member, but since a match from a relative is not guaranteed, it is far more common for generous strangers to step in. Because 70 percent of patients do not have a fully matched donor in their family, programs like the National Marrow Donor Program/Be The Match work around the clock to expand its registry of volunteer donors and help connect patients with the people with the power to save their lives.

Since being founded in 1987 with the support of Congress, NMDP/Be The Match has facilitated more than 92,000 cellular transplants to patients in need. In my home state of North Carolina, the organization facilitated 878 lifesaving transplants between 2013 and 2018 alone. During this same period, thousands of Americans heeded the call to save a stranger’s life by donating bone marrow, peripheral blood stem cells, or cord blood.


Yet, despite these major milestones, adult and pediatric patients across the U.S. continue to search for a matching donor.

Under current Centers for Medicare & Medicare Services (CMS) policy, Medicare does not fully cover the costs of providing cord blood, peripheral blood or marrow transplants to patients with blood cancers. Unlike solid organ transplants, like lungs and livers, Medicare does not fully cover the costs of cell acquisition, transport, transplant, and the subsequent hospital stay, which is generally 20- to 30-days. As a result, hospitals are forced to make an unthinkable choice: lose tens of thousands of dollars per transplant performed or refuse to offer cellular therapy transplants. Absent a legislative solution to this underfunding, I fear many will choose the latter option, undercutting patients’ access to known cures for their cancers.

We can—and must—do better.

The Patient Access to Cellular Transplant (PACT) Act (S. 1268/H.R. 2498), introduced by Sens. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrMarsha Blackburn shares what book she's reading during Trump Senate trial GOP senator provides fidget spinners to Senate colleagues at lunch Juan Williams: Counting the votes to remove Trump MORE (R-N.C.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSchiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line Sunday shows - All eyes on Senate impeachment trial Senate Democrat: 'Fine' to hear from Hunter Biden MORE (D-Ohio) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottDemocrats worry Trump team will cherry-pick withheld documents during defense What to watch for on day 4 of the Senate impeachment trial GOP cries boredom in attack on impeachment case MORE (R-S.C.) and Reps. Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindTreasury watchdog to investigate Trump opportunity zone program How the 31 Democrats in Trump districts voted on impeachment Nearly all Democrats expected to back articles of impeachment MORE (D-Wis.), Kenny MarchantKenny Ewell MarchantHouse GOP wants Senate Republicans to do more on impeachment Ethics sends memo to lawmakers on SCIF etiquette Ethics panel investigating Rep. Hastings over relationship with staffer MORE (R-Texas), Doris MatsuiDoris Okada MatsuiLobbying World Bipartisan food allergy legislation gains ground in Congress, but the fight has only just begun Democrats demand FCC act over leak of phone location data MORE (D-Calif.) and Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), would help expand access to cellular therapy transplants by transforming Medicare rules so that it is required to treat bone marrow, peripheral blood and cord blood transplants the same way it treats solid organ transplants. By adequately reimbursing hospitals for the costs of performing these lifesaving treatments, thousands of lives can be saved across the country.

Thanks to this bipartisan legislation, blood cancer patients can be hopeful they are a step closer to receiving the curative therapy they need. I urge Congress to quickly pass this bipartisan piece of legislation so that we can make blood cancer history once and for all.

Kimberly Kasow, DO is a Clinical Professor in the Department of Pediatrics, the Director of the Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Program, and the Associate Director for Quality Initiatives for the Bone Marrow Transplant and Cellular Therapy Program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.