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NEWS

TORONTO STAR
Thursday, August 11, 2005

Patient says her private scan saved OHIP cash

PET showed she didn't need cancer surgery
Woman wants reimbursement of $2,500 cost

Rob Ferguson
Queen's Park Bureau

A lung cancer survivor is pushing the Ontario government to reimburse her $2,500 for a PET scan, saying it suggested she didn't need more surgery — saving the health-care system thousands of dollars.

Mary Lou La Barbera of Mississauga got the test at a private clinic last fall, shortly before she was slated for another gruelling operation following a CT scan showing a suspicious spot on her lung.

"I was apprehensive about doing the surgery again," said La Barbera, a former Bell Canada worker, explaining why she sought the scan at Care Imaging in Mississauga.

"They said whatever it is, it's benign."

PET scans, credited with the ability to see some cancers better than MRIs and CT scans, are not yet funded for general use in Ontario because the government is conducting clinical trials of the technology.

But the push for approval got another nudge yesterday in a new report by the Wait Time Alliance of seven major national medical groups, including the Canadian Medical Association.

Among other things, the alliance recommended patients needing PET scans wait no longer than 24 hours in emergencies, seven days for urgent cases and 30 days for non-urgent scans such as cancer follow-ups.

"It's a very important benchmark to have. It gives provinces a reference," said Dr. Christopher O'Brien, president of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine, which has accused Ontario of moving too slowly with clinical trials given the wider use of PET scans in other jurisdictions.

PET scans, or positron emission tomography, examine the body's molecular makeup to detect cancer cells, which reveal themselves by sucking up radioactive sugars injected into the body.

`Right now they're fighting me but they'll send you to the U.S. and it costs $5,000 American.'

Mary Lou La Barbera, cancer survivor

O'Brien's group is pushing for the government to use the seven scanners in Ontario's trials for patients with six types of cancer: colon, some lung cancers, lymphoma, melanoma, head and neck tumours and breast cancer.

Terry Sullivan, president of the provincial government agency Cancer Care Ontario, said PET scans are in limited use in Ontario, such as where other diagnostic imaging tests like CT scans don't show cancer but blood tests suggest the disease is present.

Health Minister George Smitherman has said Ontario sees benefits in PET scans but is waiting for results of the clinical trials.

"It's not clear how effective it may be in changing the way doctors already treat a certain cancer," his spokesman, David Spencer, said yesterday.

La Barbera, whose push for reimbursement goes to a hearing in October, acknowledged she did not apply for permission to get a PET scan before spending the money on one.

But she noted the health ministry is spending growing amounts of money to send Ontarians to Detroit, Buffalo and elsewhere for them.

"Right now they're fighting me but they'll send you to the U.S. and it costs $5,000 American," said the 53 year old.

The tally for those out-of-country PET scans came to $600,481 (Canadian) in the fiscal year ended March 31, five times higher than $119,000 the previous year.

"At some point in time they have to say this is just stupid, it doesn't make sense at all," said Dave Olinoski, general manager at Care Imaging, where scans cost $2,358 and business is growing thanks to physician referrals. The clinic will begin scanning patients three days a week instead of two as soon as more technicians can be trained, he said. Spencer said out-of-province referrals for PET scans are considered on a case-by-case basis for patients whose conditions are not suitable for inclusion in the clinical trials.

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