Anticancer medication bill gains momentum thanks to York push


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The limbo continues.

For months, Matt Helfrich and friend Sarah Falvey have been calling legislators, educating and raising funds on a deeply personal issue — affordable anticancer medication.

The two former York County residents are hopeful the state Legislature will pass a bill making oral anticancer pills more affordable for cancer patients.

For the friends, the mission is personal. Each had a parent who passed away from cancer.

Pennsylvania remains one of the few states that does not have rules regulating the cost of oral chemotherapy.

All their work has come down to two similar bills, which are inching slowly to Gov. Tom Wolf's desk.

But the road remains a bumpy one, filled with uncertainty and potential red tape, Helfrich said.

Senate bill: Late last month, Senate Bill 536, a law that would make oral anticancer pills more affordable, passed unanimously and was sent to the House's health committee for review.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Robert Tomlinson, R-Bucks County.

Jennifer Smeltz, legislative director for Tomlinson, said an amendment added to SB 536 clarifies that an insurance company does not automatically have to pay for an oral medication if there are other medications proven to be more effective.

"Doctors can already weigh in on oral being the best medication for the patient," she said "This doesn't change with the amendment."

It was a compromise reached between representatives from insurance companies and cancer patient advocates.

A similar bill, House Bill 60, also passed a few months earlier. It has been taken up by the Senate but not voted on yet.

Amendments: Helfrich was concerned when the Senate bill passed with restrictions.

"I was aware that there were amendments made to SB 536 that patient advocates were concerned about," he said "However, when the Senate passed the bill 49-0 I assumed these issues were addressed. I was wrong."

Cancer treatment hits close to home for Helfrich, whose mother, Teresa, died in 2009 after losing her own cancer battle.

Helfrich said the oral anticancer medication helped keep his mother alive.

"My mother's experience was that it wasn't a 'one size fits all' result. In 2009, oral chemo was not considered 'effective' for metastic thyroid cancer. Nonetheless, she took the pills and they worked very well for her," he said.

Oral chemotherapy wasn't an option for Falvey's father, who was diagnosed with stage-four prostate cancer in 2000.

"You just want the people to get the best care out there without having to worry about the expense for it," she has said.

Hope for passage: Sen. Pat Vance, a Republican whose district includes part of northern York County, said there is a good chance the measure could become law, especially if another legislative session is called.

That is likely, as Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed a GOP-approved budget.

"Do I think it will pass, yes," Vance said. "Do I think it's a total win, no, but yes it's a step in the right direction."

Vance said she supported the measure in part because of a constituent who was a strong advocate.

All of the York County delegation has supported the bill.

Treatment: Depending on the disease, cancer patients can receive either oral or IV chemo, and doctors often recommend a combination, according to Dr. Robert Rice, a medical oncologist with WellSpan Medical Oncology. The main difference between the two is the mode of administration, and side effects depend on the pill, he said.

Most IV meds are covered under a medical benefit and require a flat fee or come out of one's deductible, Rice said. Conversely, depending on a patient's insurance, oral chemo pills are often treated as a pharmacy benefit — and up to 25 percent of the cost can come out of a patient's pocket, he said.

To help out with Helfrich and Falvey's cause, support their upcoming golf tournament. Click here for more information.