Insurance companies threaten medical innovation
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Everybody loves impressive numbers, and even I have to admit it is pretty amazing to have completed my 100th marathon, while battling a cancer that was supposed to have killed me long ago. It was a goal I set shortly after being diagnosed with what doctors said was a terminal disease, but thanks to a medical innovation, I was able to achieve it and then some.

One hundred marathons with cancer makes for a great headline, but beyond that it gives me a chance to run some additional impressive numbers past members of Congress and the new administration.

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My own senators Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenPolitical world mourns loss of comedian Jerry Stiller Maher to Tara Reade on timing of sexual assault allegation: 'Why wait until Biden is our only hope?' Democrats begin to confront Biden allegations MORE (D-Minn.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharOmar condemns use of rubber bullets, tear gas on crowds at George Floyd protest Press: Susan Rice would be ready to step in as POTUS Four Minneapolis officers involved in death of unarmed black man fired MORE (D-Minn.) are among those who have co-signed a letter to the President-elect, reminding him of his “promise to implement bold reforms to bring down the price of prescription drugs.” While I support and applaud the goal of, “Affordable lifesaving medications” for all Americans, and agree with much of what they’ve outlined. I hope the improvements in healthcare that result from these prescription drugs don’t get overlooked.

Let’s start with the number 50. That’s how many states there are, and I’ve run marathons in all of them. From a chilly, rainy race in Little Rock to a scorcher in Hawaii.  It’s interesting that as I run through the states I note that some still do not have laws requiring the same insurance payments for oral medicines as for intravenous drugs. It seems backwards that patients have higher out-of-pocket co-payments for pills and capsules that we take at home, and we have lower co-pays when we go to the doctor or the infusion center for a shot in the arm. Federal legislation to correct that problem is still pending.

How about the number 75? That’s how old I was when I completed my 100th marathon. When you think of a man in his mid-seventies, with an incurable form of cancer, you’re more likely to imagine porch swings and rocking chairs than running shoes and shorts.

And it’s not just marathons. I’ve continued my work as an attorney, I pay my insurance premiums and I contribute to the economy.

Next, most people think 13 is an unlucky number, but it’s precious to me. That’s how many years I’ve been living and running since I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare cancer in the bone marrow that used to have a life expectancy of just three years. Medical innovation changed that with a little red pill I’d take at night. It not only held my cancer in check, but it also allowed me to be well enough and free enough to run marathons around the country.

Which brings us to another sobering number: Millions. That’s how many Americans, with life-threatening cancers like me can’t risk having medical innovation threatened. They sweat even harder than I do when I’m running a marathon, just thinking about the mind-boggling obstacles to getting these essential medications.

Obstacles such as insurance companies placing cancer therapeutics on high tiers that raise the price we have to pay ourselves and put the life-saving therapy out of reach for many; pharmaceutical benefits managers getting rebates that don’t go to patients; hospitals sometimes doubling the cost of the medications they deliver.  We sweat wondering if all of those obstacles will be addressed in an even-handed way looking at all of the players, without slowing the research and development needed to continue medicine moving forward.

That struck a chord with me. After seven years on the little pill my cancer flared up. The pill was on the cutting-edge of treatment when I started during a clinical trial, but now I’d need an even newer, more advanced therapeutic, and not just one. The first treatment I tried didn’t work. The next had side effects I couldn’t tolerate. Now we’re back on the pill plus an intravenous infusion of a brand-new approach to treating cancer, and it’s working!

What’s that worth?

Here’s another precious number: 53. That’s how many years I’ve been married to my wife Ardis, who’s there to cheer me on at every one of my races and who benefits as much as I do from the therapies that keep me around.

It’s a bittersweet experience for her, because her beloved father was diagnosed with acute leukemia when he was 62 - the same age I was when my cancer struck. Sadly, he lived just five more years. If only my father-in-law had been able to benefit from the medical innovations that saved my life, he might now be enjoying his golden years.

While I’m encouraged to read that the letter from Senators Franken, Klobuchar and the others recognizes the importance of protecting and incentivizing true innovation, I hope the new administration and the full Congress take the time to understand the complexities involved so that medical progress that can march on extending and improving lives.

I’m a lucky man. Thanks to a combination of innovation and inspiration, I was at the starting line of the Philadelphia Marathon in November, and 99 marathons before that, all while I had this cancer in my bones. So, let me leave you with one last number, 2. With my amazing medications, I’ve lived to see both of my grandchildren and they got to know their grandpa. Like my marathons, medical policy requires us to look far down the road and consider long-term objectives. Shortcuts won’t get us to the finish line.

Don Wright, from the Minneapolis area, is a semiretired lawyer, computer consultant and engineer. In November he completed his 100th marathon with cancer at age 75.


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