Manitoba

Breast cancer patient paying $1K a month for vital drug asks Manitoba for help

Jennette Heinrichs says having to pay $1,000 a month out of pocket for the drug she needs in order to live suggests Manitoba is heading toward a two-tiered health-care system, one that favours people who can afford sky-high prescription costs.

Jennette Heinrichs says expensive drugs are leading to 2-tiered health-care system

Jennette Heinrichs, who is battling Stage 4 breast cancer, is calling on the government to fund the life-preserving medication she needs. (Submitted)

A breast cancer patient says she shouldn't be paying out of pocket for a drug she needs in order to live. 

Jennette Heinrichs is calling on the Manitoba government to pay her prescription of Fulvestrant, a drug her oncologist says she needs to fight Stage 4 breast cancer. 

She says she's been paying $1,000 a month for the prescription. It is not among the drugs covered by Manitoba's Pharmacare program. 

"It's already so stressful to know that the cancer has come back and that you have to battle it all over again … but then to add the financial burden as well, it's unbelievable," Heinrichs, 42, told CBC Manitoba's Radio Noon on Wednesday.

$7,000 in drug costs

Fulvestrant helps to suppress estrogen, the hormone her disease feeds on, says Heinrichs, who has been fighting breast cancer since 2011.  

She says the drug was covered by a pharmaceutical company until last year, when the firm changed course. The prescription has never been covered by Pharmacare in Manitoba.  

She has needed the drug since February and says she's spent $7,000 so far.

It's crazy to think that people have to find the money — have to find $1,000 a month — to be treated for their cancer– Jennette Heinrichs

"I think about the women that can't afford it. I mean, this creates a two-tier health care system, where some people won't be able to afford their cancer treatment and that's just fundamentally wrong."

After a treatment on Thursday morning, Heinrichs said it appears she will be prescribed a new drug, since Fulvestrant isn't working her. 

Heinrichs is on long-term disability from her position as a technical advisor in the University of Manitoba film studies program.

Manitoba Liberals took up Heinrichs's case and demanded the province cover the price of the cancer treatment drug.

Patients choosing between life and bankruptcy

"We don't think anybody should have to choose between a life-saving medication and bankruptcy," said Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont. "We don't think anybody should have to choose between medication and food or shelter."

He also said the federal government should move ahead with a national pharmacare plan to reduce the costs of expensive prescriptions.

Heinrichs told the Liberals that provincial officials have explained the drug is on a list of medications the province wants to cover, but no timeline has been provided. She's asking for interim financial support at the very least. 

"It's crazy to think that people have to find the money — have to find $1,000 a month — to be treated for their cancer," she said.

Manitoba Health Minister Cameron Friesen said "efforts are underway" to try and get the drug, and other prescriptions, covered, but he wouldn't elaborate because he didn't want to endanger the province's ongoing negotiations with pharmaceutical companies.

He said fewer than 100 people currently want to take the medication in Manitoba.

The pan-Canadian Oncology Drug Review recommended last year that governments consider reimbursing patients who use Fulvestrant, provided the cost of the drug falls.

It notes only a small number of patients need the remedy.

About the Author

Ian Froese

Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter with CBC Manitoba. He has previously worked for newspapers in Brandon and Steinbach. Story idea? Email: ian.froese@cbc.ca.

With files from Marjorie Dowhos

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