Opinion | Healthcare

Biden's goal to end cancer undermined by his own administration

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

While the pandemic seemingly has been the health crisis receiving the most attention for nearly two years, other generational health care challenges remain - including, of course, cancer, a disease that in one way or another has impacted the lives of nearly all Americans. That's why the recent announcement by the Biden administration proposing cuts to cancer therapy treatments came as a shock to many.

President Biden, to his credit, for years has been a leader in the effort to cure cancer. As vice president in the Obama administration, he was charged with overseeing the Cancer Moonshot task force, which sought additional efficiencies in and funding for cancer research. And like tens of millions of other Americans, this is a personal issue for Biden, given that his son Beau died in 2015 from brain cancer.

Even with the ubiquitous nature of this dreadful disease, cancer treatment represents particular challenges for underserved communities, where proper access to quality health care is a persistent challenge. We see this play out in the patient outcomes for Hispanics versus non-Hispanic whites, for example - the death rate for Hispanics with stomach cancer is 88 percent higher, the liver cancer death rate is 51 percent higher, and the thyroid cancer death rate is 40 percent higher.

The biggest barrier to the type of quality health care that will bring down those death rates is cost. As most Americans know, health care can be expensive if you lack quality insurance coverage. Recent ideas in Washington that would bend that cost curve down and increase access for lower-income Americans so they can afford testing and treatment - and increase access to quality cancer care - include the opportunity to purchase lower-cost insurance plans outside of ObamaCare and expanding access to Health Savings Accounts.

But there is an even more straightforward step our elected officials must take to improve cancer treatment: First, do no harm. This is where the Biden administration's recent announcement fails Americans.

In July, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced drastic funding cuts to radiation therapy services. Hospitals and cancer centers that provide these treatments to those fighting cancer will receive an 8.75 percent reduction to their CMS reimbursements - funding through Medicare and Medicaid - for those procedures. 

The effect is harmful beyond the direct effect on patients. Hospitals and doctor offices have been decimated by the effects of the COVID pandemic and some are struggling to keep their doors open. A recent Kaufman Hall study found that, while median operating margins before the pandemic were already thin at 3.5 percent, "both optimistic and pessimistic scenarios suggest that hospitals' financial status will remain below pre-pandemic levels for the duration of 2021."

When health care providers are staring at break-even funding levels and might have to absorb further cuts to cancer care, that care ultimately will be diminished. Patients who will be impacted the most are those in communities that already experience disproportionate challenges to health care access.

It is mind-boggling that the Biden administration looks at health inequality in this country and decides to cut cancer care - especially in light of the proposed $3.5 trillion spending package that is a tax-and-spend wish list of initiatives for which there is hardly consensus.  

These types of discordant propositions drive skepticism and erode trust in government among average Americans. That is bad enough, but the more immediate and direct harm will be felt by patients nationwide. Small hospitals, cancer treatment centers, and community care centers will feel the hit much more than others, and the impact will come down on the patients they serve.

The American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO), for example, decried the cuts in a statement, summarizing that "these excessive reductions will jeopardize access to life-saving radiation therapy services for Medicare beneficiaries at a time when the U.S. health care system needs 'all doors open' to treat people diagnosed with cancer." 

If President Biden wants to be serious about improving minority health outcomes, his administration should look at options that do not cut funding for services that those communities rely on most. Without a reversal of the CMS decision, the health care gap between underserved communities and others will worsen.

Mario H. Lopez is president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a public policy advocacy organization that promotes liberty, opportunity and prosperity for all Americans. Follow him on Twitter @MarioHLopez.

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