By Tim Waggoner

SALEM, Oregon, June 4, 2008 ( – Lung cancer patient, Barbara Wagner, was recently notified that her oncologist-prescribed medication that would slow the growth of cancer would not be covered by the Oregon Health Plan; the plan, however, she was informed, would cover doctor-assisted suicide should she wish to kill herself.

“Treatment of advanced cancer that is meant to prolong life, or change the course of this disease, is not a covered benefit of the Oregon Health Plan,” read the letter notifying Wagner of the health plan’s decision.

Wagner says she was shocked by the decision. “To say to someone, we’ll pay for you to die, but not pay for you to live, it’s cruel,” she told the Register-Guard. “I get angry. Who do they think they are?”

This past Monday morning, however, Wagner had reason to rejoice. A representative from the company that manufactures the treatment called the cancer patient to say they would give her the medication for free.

“I am just so thrilled,” she said. “I am so relieved and so happy.”

Dr. Walter Shaffer, medical director of the state Division of Medical Assistance Programs, which administers the Oregon Health Plan, attempted to defend the health plan’s decision. “We can’t cover everything for everyone,” he said. “We try to come up with polices that provide the most good for the most people.” Shaffer then addressed a priority list that had been developed to ration health care. “There’s some desire on the part of the framers of this list to not cover treatments that are futile,” he said, “or where the potential benefit to the patient is minimal in relation to the expense of providing the care.”

  According to an AP story on Wagner’s case, local oncologists in Oregon have said that, despite the Health Services Commission’s assertion that they were just clarifying policies already in place, healthcare practitioners have observed a sizable shift in policy in the way recurrent cancer is treated in the state. Increasingly, say local oncologists, sufferers of recurrent cancer are not receiving coverage for chemotherapy. They are always, however, eligible for state-funded assisted suicide.

Wesley J. Smith, a prominent conservative bioethicist, says that he was not surprised by the events.

“We have been warning for years that this was a possibility in Oregon. Medicaid is rationed, meaning that some treatments are not covered. But assisted suicide is always covered. And now, Barbara Wagner was faced with that very scenario.”

Smith also mentioned a similar circumstance that had occurred in the past: “This isn’t the first time this has happened either. A few years ago a patient who needed a double organ transplant was denied the treatment but would have been eligible for state-financed assisted suicide.”