Paying for a breast cancer drug for a Toronto woman with a small tumour would be unfair to people in similar circumstances who don't get their stories in the media, Health Minister Deb Matthews said Thursday.
"We cannot have a health system where the stories that land on the front page of the paper determine our health care policy," Matthews said in the Ontario legislature. "We must rely on the evidence.
"It would be unfair to those who do not get their stories on the front page if we were to give priority to those who do."
Ontario's health insurance program has deemed the tumour in Jill Anzarut's breast too small to qualify for the drug Herceptin, which costs about $40,000.
Anzarut learned Thursday afternoon that her appeal to get the drug had been denied.
"I was officially told my exceptional access claim was denied," said Anzarut.
The 35-year-old mother of two, said dealing with her diagnosis, chemotherapy and the bureaucracy has been "absolutely overwhelming."
Anzarut said she went to the media to fight on behalf of all women with breast cancer, not just herself.
"[Matthews] telling us that not everybody gets a chance to be heard by the media, that's why I'm doing this, because all of those other women who won't be heard," she said in an interview.
"I have not made this battle about me. I have made this battle about us, and that's women with breast cancer with small tumours."
Anzarut's tumour is a half-centimetre in diameter, but Ontario's health insurance will only cover the drug for tumours larger than one centimetre.
The opposition parties urged Matthews to put aside the rule book and give Anzarut the medication.
"Here's a woman faced with having to fight what can be a deadly disease, and at the same time she's fighting a bureaucracy, she's fighting the minister," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath. "You have to step aside once in a while and look at these things from a more human perspective and have some compassion. This situation screams for that kind of compassion."
But Anzarut said she's not looking for special treatment.
"I don't think it's an issue of compassion," she said. "I think it's the minister [needing to] step in and say there's something unequal across this country. Is there a reason why Ontario is saying no and almost every other province is saying yes, she should have coverage?"
The Progressive Conservatives said the Liberal government should act now knowing Anzarut would likely have Herceptin covered if she lived in another province.
"If there are experts suggesting that Herceptin is useful for treatment of smaller tumours, then why wouldn't you cause inquiries to be made," said Opposition health critic Christine Elliott.
"It's not enough to say we have to wait for the scientific evidence."
Matthews said she'd like to talk with the federal government and other provinces about a national approval process for some medications so patients are treated the same across Canada.
"It varies from province to province, and I do think in a perfect world Canadians would be covered equally," she said.
"Certainly when it comes to drugs for rare diseases a national strategy is absolutely what we need to have."
Matthews said Anzarut and others with small tumours have other drug and treatment options, adding that it shouldn't politicians to deciding who gets a drug and who doesn't.
"It's not this particular drug or nothing," she said. "The question really is do we want to go back to the day when politicians decided what drugs were covered?"
The New Democrats noted the Liberal government put out a news release six years ago boasting it was making Herceptin available to breast cancer patients with small tumours.
"They put out a press release in 2005 saying this very drug would be available for the early stages of breast cancer," said Horwath. "Now it's a different story. Why does Jill have to fight both breast cancer and her government?"