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Aug 19, 2021


Dr. John Sweetenham: Hello, I'm John Sweetenham, Associate Director of Clinical Affairs at UT Southwestern's Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, and the guest host of ASCO Daily News Podcast today.

I'm joined by my friend and colleague, Dr. Derek Raghavan, President of the Levine Cancer Institute to discuss a new study that he and his group published in JCO Oncology Practice outlining a novel approach adopted by his institution to address financial toxicity caused by the rising costs of cancer care.

Dr. Raghavan is going to tell us about the creation of a Financial Toxicity Tumor Board, which shows promise as a potential solution to significantly ease the financial burden of cancer treatment on patients and their families (DOI: 10.1200/OP.21.00124). Dr. Raghavan's full disclosures are available on our show notes, and disclosures relating to all episodes of the podcast can be found in our transcripts at Derek, it's always a pleasure to be speaking with you again on the podcast.

Dr. Derek Raghavan: Hi, John. It's a pleasure to have time with you again.

Dr. John Sweetenham: You know, I've had an opportunity to read the publication in JCO Oncology Practice, and it really is fascinating and a very interesting new approach. We know from many studies that financial toxicity is among the most rapidly growing adverse effects of cancer treatments. And patients report financial distress is a major hurdle to the quality of life. And its association with worse outcomes is now very well documented.

At the Levine Cancer Institute, as your paper describes, you created a Financial Toxicity Tumor Board, which you abbreviate to FTTB, to address this problem. And I wonder if you'd be able to describe a little bit about this tumor board, and perhaps in particular which components of this you feel are really a new approach to addressing the issue of financial toxicity.

Dr. Derek Raghavan: Thanks, John. Yeah. I mean, I guess it's important just to define what we're talking about because there are still people, particularly clinicians, who don't really understand the concept. So, I think it was probably Jonas de Souza, among others, from Mark Ratain's group, who were early in both identifying this as an issue and studying it.

And so, the concept of financial toxicity is really pretty simple. And that is that people are struggling to pay their bills and the bills are going up. With the way the pharmaceutical industry is able to set prices ad libitum, the fact that there's a lot of lobbying that goes on in Washington, and elsewhere, the prices that people have to pay can be really quite extreme.

People that are insured are, perhaps in this domain, particularly at risk because if you have, for instance, a good insurance policy with a 10% copay, and think about the cost of maybe half a million or a million dollars a course of targeted therapies or for CAR T treatment, or whatever, 10% of $500,000 is an awful lot of money for someone to come up with unexpectedly.

So, the whole idea of financial toxicity is something that has emerged with the rising costs, and more particularly, the rising prices of health care. I think the other thing that that's important is while we are seeing this reported more, and you know this from your experience, as to why, patients really protect their financial status almost more than anything else.

They don't like to admit that they're struggling financially. And there will be people who are mortgaging the house, but who don't share with the medical team that they've run out of money, that the health insurance plan isn't working. And so, they're really making choices that are very tough.

If you have no income and no insurance, I'm not implying that it isn't a problem. There are people who will still have bills to pay and have to make choices between buying food and buying their drugs. And in your practice and in mine, we both know that sometimes patients select in favor of food, which makes perfect sense, because they can't afford food and drugs.

So, the whole concept of the Financial Toxicity Tumor Board came from understanding that. At the Levine Cancer Institute, we have a big commitment to outreach and underserved populations that the team that's led by my colleague, Melissa Wheeler, last year had 68,000 people that they saw at outreach.

And that included a lot of uninsured or underinsured people. And they were bringing back to me stories of the difficulties these folks were having in terms of why they weren't seeking medical care. Given that we are the safety net in this part of North Carolina, that's particularly troubling.

And then the final thing that I'd say is with respect to underreporting, we here use a system called Tridiuum, which is an electronic system that asks patients about their quality of life. And one of the cases--one of the questions that is asked is, are you having difficulty paying your bills?

And when we compare what we've learned at the FTTB, the Financial Toxicity Tumor Board, with the answers on Tridiuum, it's quite clear that patients, while they'll talk about nausea, and vomiting, and pain, and things like that--depression--they will often say, no, I'm not having trouble financially. They'll answer to the question, no, I'm not having trouble. But we actually find out they are.

And the final point I'd make--and I suspect that because you and I went through medical school a couple of decades ago, we were both taught that it's rather inappropriate to discuss something as unpleasant as money with patients because it will make them feel that we're judging them or that we're withholding treatment.

As a consequence of that, physicians have been trained really not to discuss the costs of care. And that becomes a pretty big deal when you're actually going to have a patient that might give up little Johnny's college education for a new treatment. I mean, it might be worth it if it's going to cure them. It might be worth it if it's going to give them a 10-year survival.

But if you're talking phase I study, or a drug in the third or fourth line, which might give 2 or 3 months of extra survival, giving up little Johnny's education might be a bad trade-off. And so, the whole concept of the FTTB was to get us to do things to help patients, but also to get a physicians and the advanced practice nurses and the whole team to be focusing a little more carefully on the whole issue of this problem for patients.

So, coming back to your core question, we developed a tumor board, much like breast cancer tumor board, or GI, or whatever, that is multidisciplinary. It has all the service chiefs at our institute, several of the physicians from different domains, the nurse navigators--we have about 40, 45--our financial counselors, the people in the billing office--so administrators. I'm at present, at these finance people.

We get together and identify the worst of the problems. We have a couple of our finance people and a couple of our financial counselors who triaged the cases. If it's something simple--so Mr. Smith is age 70 and hasn't managed to get Medicare for some reason. That's not an FTTB problem. That just gets handled by the financial counselor or the navigator.

But if it's one of the big problems that we found, like people who don't have insurance, people who are getting impediments from the payers, issues that relate to coding and billing, problems of precertification, that's the time when the FTTB becomes involved.

Dr. John Sweetenham: That's great. Thanks. And I think that the point you make about these are issues which affect the insured as well as the uninsured are really important. And interesting that you have--it sounds like you have a pretty systematic way in which you can identify and engage those patients who might be embarrassed or reluctant to disclose that they have some level of financial distress.

Dr. Derek Raghavan: Yes. That's correct, John. We have some signs posted. All of our staff are trained to raise the issue in as nonjudgmental and as engaging and passionate as they can. Interestingly, it's often the front-line staff at the front desk or the nurse navigators that get the information. A proportion of our patients will actually just ask for help and see a financial counselor.

But the whole group has been trained to be as empathetic as possible and to create a scenario where it's kind of put to the patient that we understand this is not on you. This is the way health care is today. There are gaps that relate to how we pay for it. So, let us try to help you. And I think for that reason, patients are much more comfortable to address the issues once they understand how this works.

Dr. John Sweetenham: Right. Could you say just a little bit more and expand on how the patient assistance program kind of fits into this model? And then as a follow-on question to that, could you tell us a little bit about what the cost savings for your patients have been and how many patients have been impacted by the tumor board so far?

Dr. Derek Raghavan: Sure. Well, the process, as I explained, is multidisciplinary with a whole bunch of different people. We've folded all the bits together.

So, we have social workers and financial counselors who can access philanthropic support for the people where we simply can't figure out an answer. And so, in that context, that'll be copay assistance or other philanthropic things. We actually measured this in 2020 and 2019. And so, in 2019, we gave out about $1.4--a little bit more--million to about a little over 1,200 patients. In 2020, it was about $1.39 million, and it was about 1,000 patients we helped.

In terms of saving out-of-pocket expenses, I was surprised when we actually measured it and looked at it. So, in 2019, we helped nearly 600 patients. And we saved them out of pocket expenses of $55 million.

Dr. John Sweetenham: Wow.

Dr. Derek Raghavan: In 2020, it was 749 patients. And there, to my surprise, it was $60.7 million. So, this is not chump change. This is really big sums of money.

We did an analysis and we reported this in JCO OP and found that 29% of the patients just were dealing with lack of insurance or under insurance. Oftentimes, a policy that had fine print that said, while you're well, we'll cover you. And when you're sick, we won't.

So, we had to deal with that. There were payer impediments. And you and I both--I know we've chatted about this over the years. There are wonderful payers and health insurance companies and there are some that are pretty tough. They all pay their insurance executives seven or eight-figure sums--and claim to be struggling.

But the payer impediments will relate to changing their rules, having fine print that doesn't cover the rules. One month, you'll have to get--so for example, at one point, we discovered that they were turning down rituxan for diffuse large cell lymphomas. And there was one word in the diffuse large cell that was missing from what the doctors might have been writing. And so, they were denying payment for that and sending bills to patients.

There will be coding or billing complexities. That's, again, at about 20% of the cases we've seen. The toughest one is only a small proportion at the moment because we've worked on it, but it's variable--and that's precertification. And the problem there is the companies change their rules for who needs it and who doesn't.

For example, in North Carolina, Medicare recently required precertification for chemotherapy that didn't require it previously. And they set a start date and suddenly we had to cancel a bunch of patients for that date because the website to allow precertification didn't open until the day began. And so, we had to just defer by 24 hours chemotherapy so that we could get the patients precertified to avoid them getting bills.

And then I have to say--I mean, 20% of our problems have been inadequate internal processes. And that means if we'd done things better internally, we could have avoided problems. And so that brings in the way we approach management of denials. We've become very proactive.

So, I now have a team of pharmacy techs who, for example, chemotherapy will go through the rules for each health plan for the individual patient to make sure that we're actually doing the precertification correctly as of the day of treatment because the rules may have changed. So that's pretty much how it works.

We've got pharm techs who work the cases in advance. We often spend an awful lot of time talking to insurance companies. As you know, they can make it very difficult to get to the right point with the recent changes with white bagging and brown bagging where they're deflecting and deferring referrals of treatment to their own pharmacy companies, that will often not be patently obvious till we have a patient here ready to go, and we suddenly discover that they want us to get the drug from a specialty pharmacy that's their special one.

So, all of this requires an awful lot of advanced planning. Now I think if government took a little more interest in the way the insurance companies work, it would make life easier--but they don't. And so, we have used this strategy of Financial Toxicity Tumor Boards to move this forward.

And I will say that one of the very useful things it's done, it's sort of like ripping a Band-Aid off. It's created a scenario where we are now able to educate our physicians about things that they simply didn't know existed in terms of problems of reimbursement insurance and so on.

Dr. John Sweetenham: Right. And so, the process and the success that you've described with this tumor board is really pretty remarkable. I'm quite struck by the fact that this requires a lot of resource-- particularly, human resource--and a lot of organization to make it work.

So, we often talk about whether a new initiative is something that's scalable. Do you think that this FTTB model is something that's scalable down, if you see what I mean, so that it could be successful in relatively small practices as it has been in a large system such as the one that you operate?

Dr. Derek Raghavan: Yeah, John, I think that's a really good question. So, if you're thinking about scalability, if you're thinking about a place like the Simmons Cancer Center at UT Southwestern led by Carlos Arteaga and yourself, I'm sure that you could do something similar. It's a big center, it's a national referral center, it's NCI designated, and you've got reasonable support and philanthropy. So, you could do this, if you wanted to, easily.  

If you then scale it down to a private practice or an office oncology practice, I think the answer is, you can do much of it. You might not be able to do everything that we do. But it's certainly reasonable that if you have, say, 30 patients coming up over 5 days for chemotherapy, your chemotherapy nurses can be rostered to actually do some of the work that we do in terms of checking insurance situations and so on. Many of the smaller practices worked predominantly with two or three health insurance companies, so therefore there are less sets of rules.

I think the other thing is a lot of the stuff is repetitive. So, I gave you an example of rituxan and lymphoma. So, if you've got people focusing on those who can send a note around the practice to say, moving forward, if you want to prescribe rituxan, is the phrase that needs to be there to describe the type of diffuse large cell lymphoma you're addressing.

So, I think it is scalable. It's more a question of changing attitudes and accepting that medicine has changed, people are struggling to pay their bills. And physicians--particularly in an oncology space--can actually spend a little time going through the cost of care with patients, thinking about the alternatives.

We use biosimilars a lot. We're very careful to use biosimilars where the evidence really supports the fact that they are an equivalent product. Occasionally, we struggle with that because the insurance companies obviously are doing deals with some of the biosimilar companies, and we may be at short notice discovering that we need to prescribe biosimilar number two rather than number three when we thought number three was the best drug.

That becomes an ethical issue. And then I think you just have to look at the quality of the data and decide whether it's reasonable or not. Some of the biosimilars, I think, are ones where we're not sure that they're equivalent and then we do not use them.

Dr. John Sweetenham: So, we've talked a lot at a system level and the kind of global problem that we all face now with the financial toxicities. But ultimately, this is an issue for individual patients. And with the system that you've put in place, the ultimate beneficiary of this, of course, is the patient. And I just wondered if you may be able to share perhaps one example or a couple of examples of patients whose stories kind of exemplify how helpful this can be.

Dr. Derek Raghavan: Yeah. Yeah. I think in the story that we told; we described a patient where there was confusion on the explanation of benefits that was provided to the patient. This was a person with--who'd had adjuvant chemotherapy following surgical treatment of pancreatic cancer and then suddenly got a whole bunch of bills because it was noted that one of the drugs--just one of the drugs in the chemotherapy regimen--required specific precertification, which actually was not clearly seen in most of the documentation that was available.

So, in that situation, our financial counselor actually talked to the company and was able to make things better. In the situation of patients with malignant lymphoma heading to bone marrow transplantation, that's been one where various companies have used denials as a mechanism of creating leverage for contracting. There, what we've done is generally approach doctor-to-doctor to the physicians who work for the companies.

As a general rule--and I don't think this is an overstatement--I think it's easier if you talk doctor-to-doctor to a company that will employ an oncologist or a retired oncologist. Unfortunately, sometimes it'll be a retired surgeon or an internist who's punching well above his or her weight. And that's a little bit more tricky.

Frankly, I in my own practice in the past have used politicians. When we get finally to a dead end, I will provide a letter that describes what we've done, give it to the patient, and say I suggest you go and see your local congressman or senator. It's amazing how quickly payers respond to a phone call from a politician.

And that's because there's an awful lot of lobbying that goes on in Washington. The companies certainly don't want to bring attention on themselves. But I think, generally, it can be quite a good partnership if the physicians are doing their part and thinking about the bang for their buck. In other words, are they providing treatment that's going to make a difference?

They make sure they're following the rules, and that requires proactive management. Develop a good relationship--the companies certainly respond to a group that are trying to provide cost-effective care.

Dr. John Sweetenham: Thanks. And just one last question before we wind up. And that is, I think this wasn't the primary motivator for setting up your tumor board, but what do you think the impact of this kind of approach--if we were all to adopt this more formalized approach, what do you think might be the impact that it would have on cancer care disparities?

Dr. Derek Raghavan: I think it can help. I think the biggest problem--and John, you'll roll your eyes because you've heard me say it before--I have a problem with analysis paralysis. So many people working in the NCI-designated network and beyond it love to do studies of underserved populations. And my thought is, why don't you start trying to problem solve and tweak it as you go along?

And so, I think what this sort of approach does is it makes physicians and advanced practice nurses, and oncology pharmacists think more about the issue of the cost versus outcome. It allows us to help patients to deal with the problem. And because we're trying to bring all the costs down, it really goes to the value proposition.

As I think you know, we have electronically accessible pathways that are evidence-based, but certainly looking at the costs of care for equi-active and equitoxic drugs is a big piece of that. That's why we sometimes use biosimilars. So, it will generally bring the costs and prices down while also trying to help reduce the out-of-pocket costs for our patients and make us more value-orientated in terms of the whole product.

And the other thing I think is really important is if we can do it in oncology, then the cardiovascular people, and the neuroscience people, and so on can equally be thinking along these lines.

Dr. John Sweetenham: Yeah, absolutely. I agree with you. And I'd have to say, I really appreciate having an opportunity to talk with you about this. When I read the article, I immediately fired it off to our leadership team here to take a look at because I think there is much to learn and commend this particular article and the application of this type of tumor board to everyone who's listening. It's a really very, very interesting and novel approach to what is clearly going to become an increasing problem for our patients with cancer.

So, in conclusion, I would just like to say, thanks again, Derek, for sharing some time with us and sharing your insights into the tumor board.

Dr. Derek Raghavan: John, it's always a pleasure to chat with you, and especially to be interviewed by, and I've enjoyed this discussion. I hope it's been helpful to your audience.

Dr. John Sweetenham: I'd also like to thank our listeners for joining us today.  You'll find a link to Dr. Raghavan's study in the transcript of this episode. And finally, if you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to rate, review, and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks, and goodbye.



Dr. John Sweetenham: None disclosed.

Dr. Derek Raghavan:

Consulting or Advisory Role: Gerson Lehrman Group, Caris Life Sciences

Disclaimer: The purpose of this podcast is to educate and to inform. This is not a substitute for professional medical care, and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.