Alabaster cancer clinic struggling to cope with Medicare cuts

Published 5:58 pm Wednesday, October 13, 2010

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

Every day for weeks, Selma resident Tommy McCray and his wife got in their car and drove the 110-mile round trip from Dallas County to Alabaster.

McCray, who was suffering from cancer in his esophagus, often had to take nausea medicine before leaving on his daily journey to help him cope with the effects of his frequent chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

As his treatment wore on week after week, McCray became increasingly weaker, forcing his wife to leave her job to help transport him to the Central Alabama Hematology and Oncology Clinic in Alabaster every day.

“My mother lost her job because of it. He became so weak that he wasn’t able to drive himself to the clinic,” said Tanya Gougler, McCray’s daughter. “It was very hard on all of us. It was terrible on him.”

Shortly before McCray was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which has caused him to have difficulty speaking, the community cancer treatment center in Selma closed its doors in the face of years of federal Medicare cuts.

“He had lung cancer about 12 years ago, and he was able to get his treatment at the clinic here in Selma,” Gougler said. “But they closed the clinic here right before he was diagnosed this time.”

When McCray was diagnosed for the second time, the closure of the Selma clinic forced him to travel to either Montgomery or Alabaster for treatment.

“The one in Montgomery was just as far away as the one in Shelby County,” Gougler said. “It’s not only a physical strain. It’s financial, too. Just trying to buy the gas to drive 110 miles every day has been a huge financial burden for my parents.”

The Central Alabama Hematology and Oncology Clinic in the 1024 Tower in Alabaster has seen a recent influx in the number of patients from cities like Selma and Clanton.

Community cancer clinic closures like the one in Selma have forced many cancer patients across Alabama to travel hundreds of miles, sometimes daily, for their treatment.

“Basically the problem Selma was having is the same problem all of the community cancer clinics are having,” said Dr. Susan Ferguson, an oncologist at the Alabaster clinic. “We are all facing additional costs with the cuts to Medicare.”

Ferguson said Medicare is not contributing as much as it used to for cancer treatment drug costs, forcing the clinic to fund much of its drug purchases through its insurance plan.

“Nobody is controlling those drug acquisition costs. It’s not like Walmart, where everyone pays the same price for medicine,” Ferguson said. “The prices are definitely geared more toward high-volume consumers.

“Unless you are ordering $30-to-$50 million worth of drugs every time, you are going to have a higher cost,” Ferguson said. “And unless I can pay cash up front, it’s more expensive.”

The clinic’s cost of purchasing drugs has increased every year for the past several years, forcing the Alabaster clinic to struggle to operate each year, Ferguson said.

“We can’t make that cost up by charging our patients more. We just can’t do that,” Ferguson said. “We are really struggling in Alabaster. That’s how bad it’s gotten.

“Congress has been delaying addressing a 20-percent pay cut to all physicians. If that comes through, we’re through here,” Ferguson said. “We will have to shut the doors.”

Gougler said her father, who recently had surgery to remove his esophageal cancer, still drives to Alabaster regularly for checkups.

“I just don’t know where he would go if the clinic in Alabaster closed,” Gougler said. “The doctors at the (Alabaster) clinic are excellent doctors. They are just great.”

Dr. Bala Gopurala, who is also an oncologist at the Alabaster clinic, recently made a trip to Washington D.C. to speak with several Alabama legislators and encourage them to support the Medicare program.

“What we want is a better dialogue between those affected by the Medicare cuts and those who are passing the laws,” Gopurala said. “We all want good quality cancer care for our people.

“No one person can change this. We all have to work together,” Gopurala added.