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ASCO CEO Responds to Debt Ceiling Compromise

Aug 02, 2011

Dear ASCO Members:

When it comes to protecting patients’ access to community cancer care, we can breathe a very short sigh of relief. Thanks in part to the work of ASCO, state societies, other groups in the oncology community, and individual members, Congress did not adopt a proposal to reduce Medicare reimbursements for cancer drugs by $3 billion in this initial debt ceiling compromise.

Instead of including cuts to Medicare in the agreement, the bill that passed both the House and Senate calls for a Congressional committee to cut $1.5 trillion from defense and domestic spending, including Medicare. That committee will be bipartisan and will include members of both houses of Congress. The committee will make recommendations by Thanksgiving that will be voted on by December. If the committee recommendations do not materialize or are not passed by Congress, it will trigger automatic across the board reductions.  

It is likely that chemotherapy drugs and the sustainable growth rate will be on the table, and we will need to continue our advocacy well into the fall. Misguided cuts to reimbursements for oncology drugs or physician services will cause a large disruption in oncology care for very little benefit to the Medicare system. Further reductions will cause many smaller community practices, already struggling with the cuts Congress imposed in 2004, to be pushed over the edge. Thankfully, this disaster was averted—for now.

The cut that was proposed -- and will likely be considered again -- underscores a much larger problem. Medicare, which help pays for the treatment of over half of all cancer patients, is strained by rising health care costs, and an influx of new beneficiaries with the aging of the Boomers and Americans’ longer life expectancy.

Congress can protect the interests of both the Medicare program and Medicare beneficiaries by promoting evidence-based medicine, not through wholesale reductions. At this time of great promise in cancer treatment, and as we face increasing incidence of cancer and a projected workforce shortage in oncology, we urgently need to strengthen the nation’s cancer care delivery system, not weaken it.

ASCO recognizes that the Medicare payment system is broken and has been in need of repair for some time. The Society stands ready to work with Congress to develop a new system that would reimburse oncologists fully and fairly for the critical services involved in treating Medicare patients with cancer.

--Allen S. Lichter, MD
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