Advocates cheer as governor signs two cancer-related bills into law

DES MOINES — Governor Reynolds signed two insurance-related bills into law Wednesday. One requires that insurance plans cover diagnostic tests like MRIs that are used to detect breast cancer.

Forty-nine-year-old Kimberly Pearson of Oskaloosa, a breast cancer survivor, is a nurse who became a navigator for breast cancer patients at Pella’s hospital after she completed her own treatment four years ago.

“I have so many patients who are high risk and we know that and they need better imaging and they can’t afford it because of the limited allowances by insurance,” she told reporters after the bill signing ceremony, “so I have just felt very passionate that we need to pursue legislation that requires payment of that.”

Pearson and other advocates say mammograms alone are not adequate for some patients. ”If you have dense breast tissue, a mammogram may not see a mass in your breast until it’s quite large. It’s kind of like a cloudy picture. Breast MRI is much more sensitive, much easier to see through that dense tissue so you can find tumors when they’re much smaller and early and less life threatening,” she says, “and easier to treat.”

The other bill the governor signed will require health insurance plans to cover what’s called biomarker testing. Biomarker testing checks genes and other indicators, like protein levels in blood, that can be a sign of cancer and other diseases. Maria Steele, a 66-year-old retired nurse practitioner from Des Moines, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer four years ago.

“It had spread to my brain and my bones. I had to had to have radiation treatments both to my brain and my bones, but I’m also on targeted therapy which I know what therapy to be on, actually my oncologist knows what therapy I need to be on because of the biomarker testing,” Steele said, “so this is a huge day that this bill was signed.”

Steele’s insurance company originally declined to pay for the biomarker testing, but because of her own experience as a nurse practitioner, she knew how to navigate the system. She’s thrilled the new law requires insurance companies to cover the test if a doctor orders it.

“You won’t have to go through all the paperwork that I had to go through to get my biomarker test covered,” Steele said. “…This is huge for payment for what is standard of care in oncology.”

Steele, as a nurse practitioner, ordered biomarker tests for patients diagnosed with liver cancer. She told reporters the tests have revolutionized cancer treatment.

“Ten years ago if I had been diagnosed I would have gotten the same treatment that every lung cancer patient would have had but now because the biomarker’s this GPS, so you’re going to get the right treatment and typically fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy, but more importantly, on a personal level, your quality of life is so much better,” Steele said. “I was told that statistically, I had a year to live — four years ago, so I have been able to spend time with my beautiful family.”

Steele’s granddaughter, Penelope, sat on Governor Kim Reynolds lap as the governor signed the bill into law.