Death Drugs Cause Uproar in Oregon

The news from Barbara Wagner's doctor was bad, but the rejection letter from her insurance company was crushing.

The 64-year-old Oregon woman, whose lung cancer had been in remission, learned the disease had returned and would likely kill her. Her last hope was a $4,000-a-month drug that her doctor prescribed for her, but the insurance company refused to pay.

What the Oregon Health Plan did agree to cover, however, were drugs for a physician-assisted death. Those drugs would cost about $50.

"It was horrible," Wagner told ABCNews.com. "I got a letter in the mail that basically said if you want to take the pills, we will help you get that from the doctor and we will stand there and watch you die. But we won't give you the medication to live."

Critics of Oregon's decade-old Death With Dignity Law -- the only one of its kind in the nation -- have been up in arms over the indignity of her unsigned rejection letter. Even those who support Oregon's liberal law were upset.

The incident has spilled over the state border into Washington, where advocacy groups are pushing for enactment of Initiative 1000 in November, legalizing a similar assisted-death law.

Opponents say the law presents all involved with an "unacceptable conflict" and the impression that insurance companies see dying as a cost-saving measure. They say it steers those with limited finances toward assisted death.

"News of payment denial is tough enough for a terminally ill person to bear," said Steve Hopcraft, a spokesman for Compassion and Choices, a group that supports coverage of physician-assisted death.

Letter's Impact 'Devastating'

"Imagine if the recipient had pinned his hope for survival on an unproven treatment, or if this were the first time he understood the disease had entered the terminal phase. The impact of such a letter would be devastating," he told ABCNews.com.

Wagner, who had worked as a home health care worker, a waitress and a school bus driver, is divorced and lives in a low-income apartment. She said she could not afford to pay for the medication herself.

"I'm not too good today," said Wagner, a Springfield great-grandmother. "But I'm opposed to the [assisted suicide] law. I haven't considered it, even at my lowest point."

A lifelong smoker, she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2005 and quit. The state-run Oregon Health Plan generously paid for thousands of dollars worth of chemotherapy, radiation, a special bed and a wheelchair, according to Wagner.

The cancer went into remission, but in May, Wagner found it had returned. Her oncologist prescribed the drug Tarceva to slow its growth, giving her another four to six months to live.

But under the insurance plan, she can the only receive "palliative" or comfort care, because the drug does not meet the "five-year, 5 percent rule" -- that is, a 5 percent survival rate after five years.

A 2005 New England Journal of Medicine study found the drug erlotinib, marketed as Tarceva, does marginally improve survival for patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer who had completed standard chemotherapy.

The median survival among patients who took erlotinib was 6.7 months compared to 4.7 months for those on placebo. At one year, 31 percent of the patients taking erlotinib were still alive compared to 22 percent of those taking the placebo.

"It's been tough," said her daughter, Susie May, who burst into tears while talking to ABCNews.com.

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