Specialists Want Cancer Treatments Universally Available

By David South

Today’s Seniors (Canada), December 1993

A newly-formed group representing cancer doctors says it is fed up with the inhumane and bureaucratic approach to cancer care in Ontario. 

Dr. Shailendra Verma of Access to Equal Cancer Care in Ontario (AECCO) says he’s had enough. 

“My group has served the government notice that we’re fighting on our patients’ behalf,” says Verma, who faces gut-wrenching quandaries every day in his growing Ottawa practice. “In a public health system, I’m damned if I’m going to be divided into giving one set of patients a Cadillac treatment and the other Hyundai-type treatment; I don’t think that’s why we have a public health system.”

Verma says cutbacks to health care funding have meant that doctors must leap increasingly high hurdles to get the drugs their patients need. 

In jeopardy

While chemotherapy drugs administered in hospitals are still free, he says the important drugs necessary for patient comfort and treatment effectiveness are in jeopardy. 

These drugs were once free under the Ontario Drug Benefit Plan (ODBP), but now their status is tenuous. One drug, GCSF – which is crucial in helping patients between treatments of chemotherapy – is now listed under Section 8 of the ODBP and requires doctors to plead with the government each time for coverage. Often the bureaucracy moves so slowly that the course of chemotherapy is seriously disrupted, Verma says. 

“As an oncologist I’m particularly interested in ensuring everyone has access to all treatment. I think we are at a very sensitive crossroads. Over the last three or four decades we’ve developed certain treatments for diseases that more often kill than cure. And now we are at a point where we’ve got new treatments that can make the older treatments more effective. Or we’ve got brand new treatments that we are hoping to apply, and the one thing that is holding us back is cost.”

Cost

“The decisions are not based on science, they’re based on cost. It would not be an issue if treatments cost a penny a shot.”

Verma says colleagues can’t introduce some new drugs because the costs would be too high to offer it to everyone. So no one gets it.

“We have patients who walk in and say they would like to pay for it,” continues Verma. “Ethically, as a physician do you allow a patient to pay for it while sitting next to a similar patient who can’t afford it?”