BETHESDA, Md. (WUSA9) - Cancer doctors across the country are warning thousands of chemo patients they may have to turn them away. The culprit: government sequestration budget cuts that mean some clinics cannot afford the expensive drugs.
"At first I thought, the government, they would never do anything like that. That they wouldn't hurt seniors like that..." says Carol Ledbetter, who was taking her expensive chemo treatment at Bethesda's Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders. "This treatment has kept me alive."
But oncologist Ralph Boccia fears some time in the next few months, he too may have to start turning patients away, unable to afford the expensive meds after another cut in his reimbursement from Medicare. "We're going to watch it very carefully and see if we go underwater, and if we go underwater, it's over for us too." Dr. Boccia says his practice spends $1-million to $1.5 million dollars a month on chemo drugs.
Cancer clinics across the country say they're faced with a difficult choice: send patients elsewhere, or go out of business. "These are patients with life-threatening and potentially life-ending diseases," says Dr. Boccia.
Cancer clinics were already operating under very narrow margins on chemo drugs that can cost more than $2,000 a dose.
Boccia says the sequester cut formula means those narrow margins were cut by another nearly 30%, meaning some of the drugs could cost him more than the government is paying him for them. "This is very painful. Very painful for a physician. We don't like to talk to our patients about money."
Doctors say the patients will still get treatment, but it will have to be at hospitals instead of doctors' offices. And they say, ironically, that it could cost the government MORE money.
Doctors and patients have started a petition drive on the White House website in hopes of saving their clinics.
"I've been with this doctor for ten years. And he's kept me alive all these years," says patient Carol Ledbetter.
We asked the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid to tell us if it's doing anything to head off the crisis.
We have yet to hear back.