Northwest Bakersfield

Federal budget cuts impact cancer care for senior citizens

Federal budget cuts impact cancer care for senior citizens »Play Video
At the Comprehensive Blood & Cancer Center in Bakersfield, Calif., Dr. Ravi Patel tells Eyewitness News on Tuesday, April 9, 2013, that Medicare payments are being cut for chemotherapy drugs.

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Those federal budget cuts triggered by so-called "sequestration" are impacting some of the most vulnerable cancer patients. As of April 1, Medicare payments are being cut for chemotherapy drugs, and experts say that could be very disruptive to older patients.

At the Comprehensive Blood & Cancer Center in Bakersfield, Dr. Ravi Patel told Eyewitness News oncologists must pay a fixed amount for the drugs, and the reduced payments aren't enough.

"It will cause a significant disruption," Patel said on Tuesday. His clinic will see the reduced payments in a couple weeks when they get reimbursements for cancer patients they treated as of April 1.

Under Medicare, community cancer clinics are reimbursed for chemotherapy drugs based on an "average sales price," plus an additional 6 percent for administrative costs like handling and storage.

But, under the budget cuts just triggered by sequestration, that administrative cost is being cut by 2 percent. Patel said oncologists already don't get enough reimbursement to cover the real cost of some cancer drugs, the added cut in the administration payment is critical.

"We have, year after year, been figuring out how to absorb the cost " Patel said. "But, you reach a certain point where it can be difficult to do it."

Across the country, some community cancer clinics are reportedly starting to turn away Medicare patients.

"In the absence of government action to stop the dismantling of community cancer care, practices signaled they will have no choice but to adopt emergency measures to deal with the sequester cut to cancer drugs," says a statement from three national oncology organizations.

The groups, and Patel said clinics could absorb cuts to payments for their services, but they can't cover the cuts applied to the "fixed, pass-through costs" of chemotherapy and other cancer-fighting drugs.

Patel said the average cancer practice sees some 100 to 200 patients a day, he also says more than 60 percent of cancer patients are on Medicare.

If the community cancer clinics can not continue treating the Medicare cancer patients, experts say these seniors will have to get care at hospitals instead.

"They have some slight leniency on the way they are reimbursed for drugs," Patel told Eyewitness News. "So, it is possible that maybe they can absorb the cost." Patel said CBCC works with the Dignity Hospitals in Bakersfield, and they'll work together to see that the patients get care.

But, Patel also hopes there could be an exemption for the sequestration cut in Medicare drug payments. He wants the cuts reversed.

"It is worth it for us to do a letter-writing campaign," Patel urged. He wants legislators and Congressmen to be alerted that the change will cause a hardship on patients.

Patel said anyone interested in getting more information on the letter-writing campaign can call the CBCC office at 862-7120.

Dr. Patel said CBCC is developing a package for their patients who will be affected by the Medicare payment changes. And, he promises those people will get help.

"The patients, understandably, are very fearful about this, and they have to be," Patel said. "But, somehow, some where, we would make sure that the patients are taken care of."