Terminal cancer patients’ access to immunity booster Neupogen cut off

Newfoundland and Labrador has tightened its criteria to authorize special coverage for the drug

Terminal cancer patients’ access to immunity booster Neupogen cut off
Terminal cancer patients in Newfoundland and Labrador have reported that the province is no longer covering costs for an expensive medication that they need for their treatment.

The drug, Neupogen, is prescribed to people going through chemotherapy to raise levels of a certain type of white blood cells, according to the Telegram. “It boosts immunity after chemo treatments knocks it out,” explained cancer patient Janet Edmonds in a social media post. “Without Neupogen, I am extremely vulnerable to infection and I can’t get my chemotherapy treatment, so my terribly aggressive cancer is free to progress unchecked.”

As necessary as the drug is, it’s difficult to access. The price is prohibitive, costing around $200 a syringe; Edmonds said a three-week course of Neupogen costs around $1,500 for her. The drug also requires special authorization to be covered under the Newfoundland and Labrador Prescription Drug Program.

Around three months ago, the province put tighter restrictions on special coverage. The Telegram has received reports from terminal cancer patients who learned only in the past couple of weeks that they are no longer qualified.

“If your cancer is curable, you’re covered,” Edmonds said in her post on Facebook. “For those of us who are metastatic, meaning the cancer has spread to secondary sites and is now systemic, we’re written off.”

Edmonds noted that those whose cancer has metastasized are less likely to find employment or have private insurance to cover the drug’s cost.

A spokeswoman for the provincial Department of Health and Community Services said there hasn’t been any decision to stop coverage for the drug. In 2015, the prescription drug program started getting more requests for Neupogen from palliative patients being treated on an outpatient basis at the cancer clinic.

“This is not the intended coverage of the drug, and so the criteria for special authorization were revised in December 2016 to bring it in line with coverage recommended by the Atlantic Common Drug Review,” the representative said, referring to the body in charge of analysing drugs and making recommendations to provincially funded drug plans in Atlantic Canada.

The recommended scope of Neupogen coverage was not clarified in the Telegram report.

“As always, requests for special authorization under the Newfoundland and Labrador Prescription Drug Program that may fall outside the criteria can be considered on a case-by-case basis,” the spokeswoman said.

NDP MHA for St. John’s East Lorraine Michael, who is a cancer survivor, said she is disturbed by the news. “Neupogen is accessible to people with plenty of money and those with private insurance, but not to the rest of the population,” she said. “This sad recent case is yet another indicator that we need a national pharmacare program with national standards that make medicine available to everyone who needs it, not just those who can afford it.”

Related stories:
Universal drug coverage could save millions of lives and billions of dollars
Prescription medications beyond many older Canadians’ budgets
Drug maker slams review body’s rejection of ovarian cancer treatment medication