By Zachary Gottschalk
As a student at the Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, I’ve seen firsthand how the fight against cancer is proceeding at an exciting clip. To those unaware of the recent progress, the advancements we’ve made can seem miraculous.
Advancements in screenings have made it so that cancer is often found earlier, while it’s still treatable. Once diagnosed, newly available biomarker testing means that doctors and patients are able to engage in precision treatment plans specifically tailored to a person’s disease. We’ve come to learn that cancer is a deeply individual disease. Each person’s cancer is a little different. To treat someone’s cancer most effectively, we often use targeted therapy that specifically attacks certain biomarkers in their cancer. To do that, we must first learn what biomarkers a patient has through testing.
Unfortunately, it’s clear that this progress is not available to everybody. Medicaid and Medicaid expansion allow Washington residents affordable access to the health care so crucial to living longer, healthier lives. But not everyone: biomarker testing can be inaccessible to racial and ethnic minorities, as well as those who have a lower socioeconomic status, all of whom are less likely to be insured. This is unacceptable. These advancements must be used to equitably benefit everybody, including our most vulnerable communities. Cancer cannot be allowed to flourish in any community, regardless of income level and access to care.
Washington lawmakers have the opportunity to take the next step in righting this wrong by passing House Bill 1450, which would expand insurance coverage of biomarker testing, making sure as many state residents as possible have access to this technology. Beyond its game-changing contributions to cancer care, biomarker testing is important in the treatment of arthritis, other autoimmune conditions and rare diseases, with ongoing research happening in many other areas including Alzheimer’s, other neurological conditions, heart conditions and more.
Without coverage for appropriate biomarker testing, patients and their families are often faced with the decision of paying for these tests out-of-pocket or forgoing them altogether. Nowhere in Washington are these disparities more deeply felt than in Spokane. One of the poorest ZIP codes in all of Washington state is 99201 – encompassing downtown Spokane and the surrounding neighborhoods.
In Olympia, HB 1450 was approved 17-0 out of the House Health Care & Wellness Committee, chaired by Rep. Marcus Riccelli, who represents all of Spokane. Spokane Rep. Timm Ormsby now has the opportunity to hear the bill in House Appropriations. Ultimate passage would boost the health quality of all in Washington, but no area would benefit more than Riccelli and Ormsby’s home district.
As a member of the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine’s Health Equity Circle and a volunteer with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, I’ll travel to Olympia this session to advocate for overall health equity and, specifically, HB 1450. Washington is a state that has led the way in health equity and in creating an environment where everybody has access to a healthy and happy life, where health outcomes are not inextricably tied to incomes. HB 1450 is the clear next step in walking that walk.
Zachary Gottschalk is a second-year student at the Washington State University Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine in Spokane. He plans to work in oncology upon graduation.