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The Front Line


The Front Line: Charles D. Blanke, MD, SWOG Chair

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Hitting the Hill with ASCO

September 30, 2016 - Last week, I was one of 60 volunteers who took part in the ASCO Advocacy Summit, which featured 100 meetings with U.S. representatives and senators and members of their staff on Capitol Hill. I pressed the case for adequately funding cancer research, while also bringing up some payment issues of interest to our community members. A major goal of the latter was ensuring our patients can still get state-of-the-art treatment as close to home as possible.

This was the third time I had the opportunity to lobby Congress as an ASCO board member and as SWOG chair. My time on the Hill was a satisfying experience – and gave me a deeper appreciation for cancer advocates of all stripes.

The summit, held September 21 and 22, started off with some fearsome training. ASCO staff offered tips, talking points, and a stack of printed materials. The messages we were mainly there to spread: Strongly support cancer research via robust National Institutes of Health and National Cancer Institute budgets. Promote interoperability with electronic health records so doctors and nurses can deliver the best care and perhaps mine data in an effort to improve care. Ensure parity for cancer drugs, so patients can get reimbursed not only for intravenous but oral oncology drugs, which of course are much more convenient and often less toxic.

And, finally, something I am by no means an expert in, oppose the “Part B Demo” – a proposed new way for the government to pay back providers for prescription drugs. The proposal by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is well intentioned, aiming to fix the less than ideal drug reimbursement system. But ASCO argues it only addresses a small piece of the puzzle, would squeeze oncologists unsympathetically, and threaten access to high-quality care for cancer patients.

SWOG is based in Portland, Oregon, so I took my talking points into meetings with the Oregon delegation – U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, and U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden. I met with Merkley and Wyden staff members (only making a total fool of myself once, when I referred to “Senator” Biden’s moonshot!) and sat down with Congressman Blumenauer himself. He seemed to really connect with the issues involving cancer treatment and research, and the need to protect the 14.5 million cancer patients and survivors with high-value health care.

Being somewhat near the Pacific Ocean, I was paired with the Hawai’ian delegation. Many of the issues that apply to the need for travel between islands apply to patients in rural Oregon. I sadly didn’t get any surfing tips (Hey! We have huge wave action on the Oregon Coast) but on the trip I did get to see the Washington Monument with the scaffolding off.

In this most political of seasons, when Washington, D.C. is in the forefront of everyone’s psyche, it was refreshing to actually be there and meet policymakers in person. Congress can have a profound impact on the work we do as clinical oncologists and researchers, and on our patients. Speaking directly to members of Congress – and hearing their views in person – was meaningful. And hopefully, given the numbers of ASCO advocates there, it was effective.

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