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National expert tells Pittsburgh providers to expect a cost crisis in cancer care

| Saturday, March 8, 2014, 12:08 a.m.

Employers and health care providers must overhaul how they prevent and fight cancer to head off an expensive crisis in treating the disease, a top national health adviser said Friday.

“The trick here is not simply to cut costs. It's cutting costs intelligently — reducing costs without impairing quality,” said Dr. Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine, speaking to a private Downtown gathering hosted by insurer Highmark Inc.

The price for treating all cancer cases in the United States could climb 39 percent this decade, a staggering trend that could burden patients, families and the medical system unless health leaders rethink their practices, Fineberg said.

A fast-growing elderly population, more costly treatments and a shrunken oncology workforce could exacerbate the cancer problem, according to analysts at the institute. Part of the United States National Academies in Washington, the nonprofit group warned in September that the incidence of cancer could jump 45 percent to 2.3 million new diagnoses annually by 2030.

Several challenges could emerge within that boom, the institute wrote in a report. Too few qualified workers might be available to care for patients, whose increasingly complex treatment decisions are often not based on the best information available, analysts found.

Meanwhile, Fineberg said a quarter of cancer patients surveyed believed clinicians did not share relevant details with others involved in their care. He argued the medical system and employers can do more to prevent the disease, saying the country lags other developed nations in investing in prevention.

Highmark CEO Dr. William Winkenwerder built on Fineberg's visit to ask other local employers to help prevent cancer, including through employee wellness programs. The company's Allegheny Health Network is using findings by the national group as “essentially our playbook” at its own Cancer Institute, said institute Chairman Dr. David Parda.

“The patient has all the answers. We just need to listen better,” Parda said.

Fineberg was the keynote speaker as the CEO Roundtable on Cancer, a national executive group, honored Highmark with Gold Standard accreditation. The award recognizes Highmark for encouraging its employees to reduce their cancer risk.

UPMC shares the worries the Institute of Medicine aired, said Dr. Peter Ellis, a deputy director at UPMC CancerCenter.

He said UPMC developed multimillion-dollar methods to identify the most cost-effective therapies to treat cancer and other ailments.

“There are some costs we can't avoid because there are genuine improvements,” Ellis said, calling that “the price of success.”

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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