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Odds Are Against Congress Restoring Cancer Drug Funding

Lawmakers and outside coalitions supported by doctors and drug companies face an uphill battle in their bid to reverse sequester cuts that have hit cancer drugs.

Although more than 60 lawmakers are co-sponsoring a bipartisan House bill (HR 1416) to block the cuts, it is not scheduled for floor action and there is no companion version in the Senate. Moreover, the White House and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill want to replace the whole sequester and have said they are not interested in piecemeal funding fixes.

Still, heavy lobbying efforts by groups that represent cancer doctors and pharmaceutical companies, such as the Community Oncology Alliance, are under way. They argue that if Congress can act to end furloughs of air traffic controllers, as it did last month, cancer patients should also be protected.

“We don’t want people waiting in lines in airports. But at the same time, when we have cancer patients who are vulnerable and need our help, I really thought that should have been the place that we should have gone first,” Rep. Renee Ellmers, R-N.C., the bill’s main sponsor, said in a May 1 interview with MSNBC. Fifty other GOP House members back the bill, along with more than a dozen Democrats.

Their aim is to reverse the sequester’s 2 percent cut in Medicare funding that covers the costs of drugs administered in doctors’ offices for cancer treatments and some other ailments. Those payments have long been a key source of revenue for small cancer clinics, which advocates say deliver services more efficiently than larger facilities.

Gerard Anderson, a professor of health policy and management at John Hopkins University, said companies lobbying to restore the funds have a long history of successfully shaping Medicare policy. “The pharmaceutical companies are a very powerful force in Washington,” he said.

Advocates for cancer doctors point to a 2011 report done for McKesson Corp., an owner of cancer specialty services, which found the average annual cost of drugs and associated treatments was $47,500 per patient at a smaller cancer practice and $54,000 per patient at a larger hospital.

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