During the last thirty years, physicians, drug researchers, patients and their families have waged a highly publicized, vigorous and gut-wrenching War on Cancer. There has been considerable public and private investment in trying to find ways to successfully treat cancer, with mixed results. In this long battle, the numbers are stark. More than 113,000 Californians will be diagnosed with cancer this year. By the end of the year, over 53,000 residents in our state will die from cancer. And the sad truth about this disease is that in almost all cases, there is some experimental element to treating it because of the many variations and therapies of cancer and the individual responses to therapies by each cancer patient. Because of the uniquely experimental nature of treating cancer as opposed to other diseases, it heightens the need for rigorous scientifically controlled research studies so that treatment can become more refined, helping more people. Clinical trials offer patients hope for improved quality of life and survival and progress in the development of new treatments to fight various types of cancer, not only for themselves, but for all who may eventually be stricken. From a policy perspective, we should encourage participation in clinical trials if we have any hope of making progress in this war.

The potential for scientific advancement in treating cancer is spectacular, het not all of our public policies are adequately supportive of cancer research. Given the enormity of this devastating disease, I was puzzled when I learned that only 3% of adults with cancer are in clinical trials of experimental therapies that offer hope for saving their lives. Upon closer examination, I discovered that not all HMOs and insurers pay for the routine medical care a patient receives if he or she is enrolled in a study to test a new therapy. These clinical trials are carefully designed studies to determine whether an experimental therapy is safe and effective and whether it can be made available to patients throughout the nation. Since the drugs being tested in clinical trials are experimental, not al clinical trials are successful. But for many patients, these new and unproven therapies offered in the clinical studies offer them what is likely the only medical therapy that may cure them.

SB 37 (Speier) has been introduced in the California Legislature to address this problem by requiring health plans to cover the routine patient care costs for cancer patients who are enrolled in a clinical trial that has been approved by the National Institutes of Health, the Federal Food and Drug Administration, the Defense Department, or the Veterans’ Administration. We need to assure cancer patients that if they and their physicians feel that an experimental treatment is their best hope at healing, that their insurance will not fail them.

We have the choice to advance the fight against cancer. The Governor and Legislature can make progress by enacting SB 37. As William Jennings Bryan once said “destiny is not a mater of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”

July 6, 2001

Postscript: Governor Davis signed SB 37 into law.