Helping cancer patients pay for cutting-edge treatment

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Cancer’s the second leading cause of death in New Jersey after heart disease, but medical research fights back by finding new and effective cancer treatments. That’s the good news. The bad news about some of these ground breaking therapies, according to Dr. Eric Whitman, is the cost.

“They’re so expensive. The bills can be a million dollars for one treatment,” said Whitman, director of Atlantic Health System Cancer Care. “I mean, we’re talking about possible lifesaving therapies that you just can’t get access to, because they’re so new and they’re so expensive that the insurance companies haven’t caught up yet.”

Whitman’s working on a solution at Morristown Medical Center’s Simon Cancer Center where a new Breakthrough Oncology Accelerator unit will soon open with two goals. The first is to help patients pay for expensive cancer treatments that already have FDA approval. The second is to help enroll cancer patients in clinical trials that will be offered there. One now provides a brand-new, aggressive treatment with a drug that shrinks tumors in patients with 4th stage colorectal cancer.

“So far in the earlier study that was published, it showed that it doubled the response rate — meaning that it performed about two times better than the standard of care. It is given in combination with standard of care agents,” said Dr. Angela Alistar, medical director, GI Medical Oncology at the Morristown Medical Center.

“We’re trying to set up a financial system, within the system, that makes it easy and straightforward for them to get access to those drugs when they need them, when it’s appropriate, without compromising their care, without compromising their finances,” Whitman said.

And without sticking hospitals with the bill. How? A new partnership brings together Atlantic Health System and Translational Genomics Research Institute with Origin Commercial Ventures, a venture capital firm that will pump $3 to $6 billion into creating a platform that integrates medical research, pharma, health care and insurance systems. High promise cancer markets are a good investment, according to Origin’s managing partner, Cosmo Smith.

“We’re looking at exponential growth, anywhere from 30 to 35 percent over the course of the next several years. And it’s a market that, by any estimation, is north of $120 to $130 billion over the course of the next five years,” said Smith.

Smith says Origin expects to earn a 4 to 6 percent profit, and will focus on building a clear, streamlined infrastructure. The goal?

“To ensure that the most promising therapies and the most ready of those promising therapies get to the patients without a whole lot of lag time,” Smith said.

One of those pricey therapies is at Morristown Medical Center, which is part of the Atlantic Health System Cancer Care. It engineers a patient’s immune system to attack cancer cells and has eradicated large tumors in more than half of treated melanoma patients. Clients accepted through the Oncology Accelerator don’t have to pass a financial means test.

“We’re confronted with patients saying, ‘I can’t afford that drug, but I want it. I need it. What can I do?’ And we’re just trying to create a better way for people to get access to the drug,” Whitman said.

The Breakthrough Oncology Accelerator Program enrolled its first patient a couple weeks ago. It hopes to have 100 open cancer clinical trials by next March.