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Hampton U cancer treatment center may get boost from General Assembly

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 2/23/2017, 9:27 p.m.
The Virginia General Assembly is poised to hand Hampton University a major victory in its bid to boost the use ...

The Virginia General Assembly is poised to hand Hampton University a major victory in its bid to boost the use of its seven-year-old, $225 million cancer treatment center that uses proton beam radiation therapy to help eradicate the disease in its patients.

A bill now moving through the legislature is expected to aid the university to overcome the reluctance of major insurance companies to cover the use of proton beam therapy, particularly in the treatment of prostate cancer and possibly breast cancer.

That could potentially boost the number of patients receiving treatment at the center from around 60 people a day to more than 100 a day and make it easier to finance development of another proton beam treatment center that INOVA and the University of Virginia are planning in Northern Virginia.

While Medicare, Medicaid and other government insurance, as well as many Blue Cross plans, cover the FDA-approved treatment, insurers including Anthem, Aetna, Cigna and Humana continue to label the therapy as experimental, giving preference to other forms of radiation treatment, such as intensity modulated radiation therapy that involves use of X-rays.

Insurers, as well as many physicians, argue there is a lack of evidence-based studies to show that proton beam therapy is worth the far higher expense when compared with results from other forms of radiation treatment that are less costly.

However, advocates note that the same insurers that refuse to cover treatment in Virginia are willing to provide coverage for patients that travel to proton therapy centers in other states.

The bill would not mandate coverage, but would bar insurers from holding proton beam therapy to a “higher standard of clinical evidence” than other therapies in making decisions on coverage.

The measure would put proton beam therapy on the same footing as other treatments, potentially eliminating the experimental label.

In a bipartisan show of support, the House of Delegates has passed the bill by a wide margin. And on Monday, a Senate committee voted 13-0, with one abstention, to send the legislation to the full Senate over the objections of the insurance companies, suggesting it would likely pass the upper chamber with bipartisan support.

To advocates who believe in the treatment, the win would be huge for cancer patients whom they believe could gain access to a life-saving treatment that avoids many of the side effects of other treatments and the effects of surgery.

That’s the argument that has been driving Bill Thomas, associate vice president at Hampton, who has spent four years trying to persuade Republicans and Democrats to embrace this kind of legislation.

In his view, proton beam therapy offers patients the best chance of survival with the fewest long-lasting impacts, including less damage to surrounding tissue because the beam can be tightly targeted to the diseased tissue.

He is passionate because he watched three members of his family die of cancer despite being treated with more conventional therapies. He said his mother and father suffered in agony from their cancer treatment that he believes might have been avoided if proton beam therapy had been available.