It’s time to hold insurers accountable. The state legislature can increase access to top-notch cancer care.
By Senator Angela Burks Hill
A cancer diagnosis is devastating, no two ways about it. Every year in Mississippi, more than 15,000 people will find out they have cancer. Along with their families, they will face many health, financial, and emotional burdens. While fighting cancer is never easy, insurance companies are making things worse by improperly denying cancer treatment. My fellow legislators and I have an opportunity to step up and change that.
Nearly everyone I know has been touched by cancer in some way, and I am no exception. More than a decade ago, my husband, an otherwise healthy 44-year-old, discovered he had chondrosarcoma in his left knee. The preferred treatment for his cancer was surgery since chemotherapy and traditional radiation did not work on this type of cancer. He had his left leg amputated above the knee in 2006, and has been cancer free since. BUT, I learned about proton therapy while researching his options. I learned that patients whose chondrosarcoma tumors were in the neck and jaw joints ( basically inoperable), were having success with proton beam radiation.
Proton treatment is a form of radiation that specifically targets cancer cells while minimizing the impact on surrounding healthy tissue. It wasn’t necessary for my husband, but I learned that the treatment could be incredibly valuable for cancer patients with few other options. Unfortunately, insurers improperly deny many patients’ access to the treatment — forcing them to shoulder emotional and financial burdens while fighting for access to the treatment their doctors recommend.
Now my colleagues in the State Legislature and I can make sure Mississippians have access to this advanced form of radiation treatment. I introduced Senate Bill 2558 that would require all health insurance policies in the state that include benefits for radiation oncology to cover proton therapy based on the latest recommendations by the American Society of Radiation Oncologists.
Recently, I learned the story of a fellow Mississippian whose experience epitomizes the broken state of patient access to proton therapy. UMMC anesthesiologist Dr. Bryan Heirlmeier reached out to me for help after Bryan’s insurance company repeatedly denied proton therapy. Like many, he found himself on the losing end of an unjust power imbalance. Bryan’s physicians at UMMC recommended protons to target the tumor in his brain because the treatment is so precise. They told the 36-year-old that traditional radiation could affect his vision, lower his IQ, and possibly end his medical career. Despite this recommendation from doctors at both UMMC and a leading cancer institution, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mississippi (BCBS) called the treatment “experimental and investigational” and refused to pay — based on outdated information no less. Left without options, Bryan took out $150,000 in loans from family and friends to cover his proton treatment at MD Anderson in Houston. At the same time that patients like Bryan who faithfully paid their insurance premiums are denied, Mississippi Medicaid is paying for adult patients to receive this treatment at out of state facilities as well as paying for their transportation to and from MS.
Beyond patient protection from improper insurance denials, another way the legislature can help Mississippi cancer patients is to explore the benefits of having a proton therapy center here in our state. There are 29 proton centers in the country today, and more are under construction. Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and Louisiana all have proton centers — but not Mississippi. Traveling far away for long-term treatment increases costs and other hardships for cancer patients and their families.
Insurance companies must give patients access to the care they need and right now, they are failing. Mississippi patients, physicians, and doctors in training should have access to this technology. I am committed to providing Mississippians greater access to proton therapy, the best option available for treating many types of cancer. I hope my colleagues in the legislature will join me in this mission.
Senator Angela Burks Hill is a State Senator for the 40th district representing Marion and Pearl River.