A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

In a state thick with cancer, threatened research and screening organizations make cases for state money

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Gov. Matt Bevin’s proposed budget for the next two fiscal years calls for cuts to five cancer research and prevention programs, including screenings for breast, colon, cervical, lung and ovarian cancer, and for research on lung cancer, all of which plague the state.

The programs are included in a list of 70 that Bevin proposed to eliminate to save the state $85 million, or less than 1 percent of the overall budget. He has said these cuts are necessary to help fund the state’s ailing pension system.

Mammograms are a screening for breast cancer. (Photo from Ky Health News/WTVQ image)

Dr. Whitney Jones, a Louisville gastroenterologist and founder of the Kentucky Cancer Foundation, which provides funds for colon-cancer screening, said he recognizes the challenges of balancing a state budget but hopes the state will reconsider eliminating the colon cancer screening and prevention program. He said of Bevin, “We hope this is just his first position.”

Jones, who also founded the Colon Cancer Prevention Project in Louisville, called the state’s improvement from 49th to 19th for colorectal screening in the past 15 years, “the best public health story” in Kentucky.

He added that this was only possible because the state offered screenings to uninsured and under-insured Kentuckians, expanded Medicaid to those who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, and has a unique, multi-partner screening program — all of which he said makes Kentucky “the envy of most states in the nation.”

But he also said there is still work to be done because Kentucky still leads the nation in colon cancer and remains in the top 10 for colon-cancer deaths.

Doug Hogan, a spokesman for the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the state’s screening programs, including those for colon, breast and cervical cancer, are no longer needed because they are now covered by all insurance plans with no deductibles or co-payments.

Jones acknowledged that the program needs to be restructured because of the Medicaid expansion, but argues that it is still necessary for several reasons. He said Kentucky still has a large number of people without health insurance; the federal law that requires almost all Americans to have insurance or pay a tax penalty will be repealed at the end of the year; the coming work requirements and premiums in Medicaid will lead to some people going without coverage; and there will be a continuing need for education and outreach about cancer and screening.

“There has to be a better way to cut out the bad and support or maintain the good,” Jones said. “And I would just suggest that the Kentucky Colon Cancer Screening Program is the baby and not the bathwater.”

Lung cancer research targeted in a state that has the most of it

Another program set to lose about $5 million is the Lung Cancer Research Grant Program, a collaboration between the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville that is funded by funds from states’ 1998 settlement with cigarette manufacturers. UK’s portion is $2.4 million, spokesman Jay Blanton said.

Dr. Mark Evers of UK’s Markey Cancer Institute said this statewide initiative seeds a number of pilot projects and “spans the gamut” from new lung-cancer therapies and treatments to new clinical trials and prevention strategies, such as lung-cancer screening. He said such pilot programs are often used to help get larger grants from the National Institutes of Health and other sources.

Evers noted that the Kentucky Lung Cancer Education Awareness Detection Survivorship Collaborative (Kentucky LEADS Collaborative for short), now funded by a $7 million Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation grant, is a great example of how a pilot project from this research grant program was able to get a larger grant to further its work.

“It really is a valuable mechanism for us to provide pilot funding for investigators to get the initial data so that they can carry that forward in larger extramural grants,” Evers said.

He also noted that the research grant program is responsible for the Kentucky Clinical Trials Network, which he described as another joint venture with U of L that “pushes out” clinical trials for lung cancer, which have been conducted in about 90 percent of Kentucky’s counties.

Asked if the program could survive without the state funding, Blanton, who sat in on the telephone interview with Evers, said, “We’re just trying to get our arms around the numbers right now.”

Asked why the program is important, Evers pointed to the state’s high smoking rate, second in the nation, and its No. 1 rank in number of lung-cancer cases. “We’ve got a terrible problem with this in the state,” Evers said.

When Kentucky researchers made a pitch to the National Cancer Institute, Evers said, “The first words out of their mouth were, ‘What are you guys doing about your smoking problem?’ So, it’s really incumbent upon us to be able to have the resources to attack this by screening, prevention and treatment.”

While Kentucky LEADS is on Bevin’s list of programs that would get no state funding in the next two fiscal years, it has never received any, said Jamie Studts, a UK professor of behavioral science and the lead investigator for the collaborative. He said it had been slated to get $10,000 in each year of the current budget, but that Bevin had “red-lined” the allocation.

Studts said that the cut “doesn’t directly affect us in terms of dollars, but indirectly it does send a message that the governor and this administration is not interested in making those kinds of efforts to address Kentucky’s burden of lung cancer.”

Breast and cervical cancer: state squeezes local health departments

As for the screening programs for breast and cervical cancer, Hogan said that in addition to these screenings now being covered by insurance, they are also operated by federal funds, so elimination of any state funds would not impact them.

Allison Adams, president of the Kentucky Health Department Association, said that while it’s true that the breast and cervical screening programs have not received any state dollars for several years and get some federal funds, most of their funding for these programs comes from local tax dollars.

For example, she said that in the fiscal year that ended in June 2017, local health departments received about $607,000 in federal funding for breast and cervical cancer screening, and the rest came from $2.3 million in local dollars. The programs serve about 20,000 patients a year.

Adams said the real challenge for health departments to continue such programs, or any of the other initiatives that involve direct patient care, is that Bevin’s budget has added $38.5 million to their annual pension liability. She said that will force the departments to provide programs that focus on overall health, safety and prevention and look for ways to spend $1 to affect 10 people, instead of $10 to affect one.

“Local health departments need to be working on the prevention piece, and less on the treatment and intervention,” Adams said, but they “will have to do their own prioritization and determine which programs have the absolute most health benefit for all of Kentuckians. We really have to make some tough decisions of where we are going to spend our money that’s going to have the greater impact over the health of Kentucky.”

The Ovarian Cancer Screening Program is also slated to be cut. Linda Blackford of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports that this UK program offers free vaginal ultrasound screenings to women for ovarian cancer and has provided nearly 50,000 free screenings since its creation 30 years ago.

Blackford notes that the Pediatric Cancer Research Trust Fund, established in 2015 by Sen. Max Wise, R-Campbellsville, has been approved to receive $2.5 million in each year of the biennium to fund pediatric brain cancer research at UK and U of L. Bevin’s budget calls for each of the universities to provide a minimum of $1.2 million a year for the program.

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