A Coquitlam couple has been left to foot a $1,200-a-month bill for cancer treatments and are sounding the alarm over what they call a funding loophole.
Kari Atkins has been living with cancer since 2016, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since then, she’s been throughmultiple rounds of radiation and has been prescribed a drug called Herceptin, the brand name for a common cancer drug trastuzumab. The drug is a monoclonal antibody that bonds to HER2 receptors in the body and inhibits the growth of cancer cells.
At the time, her treatment was fully funded and she recovered.
But in August 2019 Atkins was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer that spread to her liver, bones and brain. It’s unlikely her cancer will ever go away, however, with proper treatment Atkins has been told she can live longer with a good quality of life.
After trying two previous treatments, Atkins was prescribed a cancer protocol — the term used for a particular course of treatment — from an oncologist at BC Cancer. The regimen included trastuzumab, along with two other drugs currently undergoing Health Canada review.
While the Atkins have reached agreements through the BC Cancer Agency’s Compassionate Access Program to have two of the drugs fully covered, they are left paying for half of the trastuzumab on their own.
In an interview with Black Press Media, Atkins noted that every part of her treatment was covered in the past, with the only difference being that now its a terminal illness.
“It was paid for when I took it the first time, it was paid for when I took it the second time. But now that it’s my third time, it’s no longer paid for,” Atkins said. “It feels like I’m a forgotten person.”
The couple has relied on savings and help from family over the past seven months. Both Matthew and Kari are self-employed. Kari has returned to taking on as many clients as she can manage while balancing the committment to her treatment.
“It kills me that she sets an alarm in the morning to get up and make her way into our home office to have a meeting on the phone, then after that has to go lie down and have a rest so she can get up later in the day and take another meeting,” Matthew said.
Atkins said her oncologist told her that multiple patients are stuck in the same funding loophole. Black Press Media requested an interview with Atkins’ oncologist, but BC Cancer declined the request and directed questions to the Ministry of Health.
The ministry said that cancer drugs that are publicly available within the province and are funded by the BC Cancer Agency. Manufacturer recommendations for any new cancer drug intended for public use must successfully withstand a Canada-wide, evidence-based review process by Health Canada.
Once that process is complete, provinces and territories determine whether the drugs will receive funding. In B.C., the final reimbursement decision is made based on several factors, including the pan-Canadian recommendation and the outcome of price negotiations.
Meanwhile, applications to the Compassionate Access Program are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.
“We do recognize that requests which have significant financial impact may be declined, as decisions should consider the benefit to the individual as well as the resource implications for the broader patient population,” the ministry said in an emailed statement.
As the Atkins await funding approval, they are calling on the government to extend some kind of transitional funding for people in Kari’s position.
“This feels like the worst possible time to be abandoned by the government and the health care system,” Matthew said. “If there was ever a time we needed somebody to step up and help, this is it.”