Province looks at paying for cancer drug coverage

A coalition of cancer organizations is trying to get all cancer drugs covered for patients who need the life-saving medication.

Province pays for IV cancer treatments, but not for treatments when done in pill form

With drug costs ranging from a few hundred dollars per month to as high as $20,000 per month, depending on the medication, many people struggle to cope with the financial burden associated with their illness. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

A coalition of cancer organizations is trying to get all cancer drugs covered for patients who need the life-saving medication.

This year in Nova Scotia, more than 6,000 people will be diagnosed with some form of cancer.

In many provinces, cancer drugs are covered by the provincial government, whether the patient takes the medication in hospital or at home in pill form — but not in Nova Scotia, the other Atlantic provinces and Ontario.

With drug costs ranging from a few hundred dollars per month to as high as $20,000 per month, depending on the medication, many people struggle to cope with the financial burden associated with their illness.

Derek Caine knows this all too well. His leukemia is in remission, but he knows it will come back and he knows he will require a pill rather than IV chemotherapy for treatment.

Caine can't understand why the province won't pay for cancer drugs in pill form, but will when it is applied intravenously.

"Why am I a second-class citizen?" he said.

"Our very lives depend on this, so please look at it again. Give us the drugs that we need and pay for them."

Dr. Bruce Colwell, an oncologist at the QE II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax, is part of CanCertainty, a coalition of 35 cancer organizations, that's working to change this.

"All those patients in Atlantic Canada and the rest of the country that are paying for their chemotherapy, that’s oral. Just because it’s by mouth, they have to pay for it. If it’s intravenously, they don’t have to pay for it," he told CBC’s Information Morning.

In some cases, patients have a choice whether to take a pill or receive treatment intravenously.

"More often than not, you don’t have a choice. The best treatment, the only treatment — that’s a pill. And if it’s the only treatment, and it’s a pill, well then we have to go looking for [payment options]," said Colwell.

"We have a person that their full-time job is [as a] medical resource specialist — we call her — who comes in, sees these patients and we try to get her to help figure out how we’re going to pay for this drug."

'Is it about the money? No, it’s about the fairness'

Colwell says it could take as long as six or eight weeks before patients receive medication while they figure out a way to pay for it.

The price of cancer drugs varies widely, depending on the type of cancer.

For instance, kidney cancer drugs range between $5,000 and $6,000 per month. Colwell says for a family making $35,000 per year who qualifies for family pharmacare, they’re going to have to pay a co-pay of $2,600 upfront before they receive the drug.

"Another drug, for example for colon cancer, Xeloda or capecitabine — that drug is about $700 every two weeks … but if you look at the cost of that there is an IV equivalent of that, that can be given in hospital. It’s much cheaper for the drug, but the cost of the nursing, the hospital, all that actually adds up to more. So you’d be cost saving in terms of resources by giving the pill," he said.

Colwell admits expanding coverage for all treatments is costly.

"It’s going to cost money, no doubt about it. It’s going to cost money. Is it about the money? No, it’s about the fairness. It’s about making it fair between that patient that cannot have IV and a patient that gets a pill. You have cancer? You should be treated the same," he said.

"I’ve had patients who have considered moving to other provinces to get drugs."

Health Minister Leo Glavine says the province is looking at changing the status quo.

"It is a very, very extraordinary burden on people during one of the most stressful times," he said.