Many Americans — and policymakers — are sick and tired of discussing and debating the federal sequester. After 19 long months of excruciatingly stagnant debate, the myriad impacts of the across-the-board spending cuts are proving to affect some more than others, and Americans as well as elected officials are showing growing fatigue to carry the subject forward.
No, the sky did not fall on March 1, as some had predicted. But for those who are tuning out, just be glad you aren’t sick. Especially those who are battling cancer.
Among the unlucky Americans who will certainly feel the aftermath of Congress’ indecision are millions of cancer patients who depend on Medicare. Receiving a cancer diagnosis is one of the most frightening experiences one can imagine, but in the United States, this fear has been at least tempered with the knowledge that there exists an abundance of specialists and experts available to provide outstanding, life-extending care to seniors and other fighting cancer in local communities throughout the country.
The sequester changes that.
Beginning April 1, providers of community-based cancer care, where more than 80 percent of patients receive their care, will begin experiencing cuts of extreme proportions. Already on financially unstable ground because of funding shortfalls for drug therapies, the federal sequester will reduce reimbursement for Medicare Part B cancer therapies from the current payment rate of the average sales price plus 6 percent to just ASP plus 4.3 percent, resulting in severe financial losses for practices that treat cancer patients in the community. The current drug reimbursement rate does not adequately pay for the acquisition and related costs (such as storage, inventory, waste disposal, pharmacy and admixture facilities and staff) of life-sustaining cancer drugs; as a result, many critical cancer drugs are currently reimbursed below cost. After April 1, our cancer doctors will be asked to personally help fund a portion of each Medicare patient’s treatments.
Since 2003, community cancer care has experienced a waterfall of funding reductions all while fending off an additional double digit percentage cuts to the Sustainable Growth Rate, which is the formula used in setting Medicare physician payments. The sequester and its disproportionate impact on cancer is just the latest in a series of damaging cuts that threaten patient access to cancer care through facility closures, exorbitant patient out-of-pocket copays and drug acquisition costs, or doctors’ inability to accept Medicare patients.
The question we must ask ourselves is: Who can survive a 28 percent funding cut while continuing to provide high-quality care?
The impact of further reductions of Medicare Part B reimbursements is particularly devastating because the current rate already fails to adequately pay community cancer clinics for the purchase of critical, life-sustaining cancer drugs. The current rate unfairly includes “prompt pay” discounts to drug distributors in its calculation even though these discounts are not passed on to providers — particularly community cancer clinics that provide accessible, specialized care that so many patients with limited mobility rely on.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.