Originally created 05/27/01

Cancer initiative launch set



ATLANTA - It's been nearly a year since Gov. Roy Barnes unveiled plans to make Georgia a national leader in the fight against cancer, yet the agency arising from that announcement still has no board and no executive director.

But the Georgia Cancer Coalition also had no money until late last month, when the governor signed both the mid-year 2001 and full-year 2002 budgets on the same day. The legislature had approved the two spending plans, including more than $60 million for the cancer effort, in late February and mid-March.

"We really couldn't do anything until we had the money in hand," said Renay Blumenthal, Mr. Barnes' policy director, who has played a key role in developing the cancer initiative. "It really would have been presumptuous on our part to move forward when the General Assembly hadn't even approved our funding."

What Ms. Blumenthal and others working on the project have been doing is laying the groundwork so the coalition can move forward quickly when its organization is in place.

Among the concurrent tasks they're involved in are:

Working with officials at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital to launch Georgia's first world-class cancer center. Health officials in Augusta, Savannah and other communities are vying to play host to up to two additional centers the coalition expects to create.

Developing criteria for hiring 150 eminent cancer researchers during the next five to seven years. The General Assembly has appropriated $4.8 million to fund the first 30 researchers.

Wooing the business/philanthropic community to support the initiative. Mr. Barnes is willing for the state to kick in 40 percent of the up to $1 billion price tag, using part of Georgia's share of the national tobacco settlement. For the other 60 percent, he's looking to the federal government and the private sector, Ms. Blumenthal said.

A group of physicians working to land one of the cancer centers for Augusta is in the same financial quandary that faced the coalition until its state funding came through. It's trying to raise $50 million for the project, but can't get commitments unless and until Augusta wins the designation, said Dr. Jerry Howington, a committee member and radiation oncologist.

But Dr. Howington and his colleagues are optimistic that Augusta will be chosen to house one of the cancer centers because of the research capabilities of the Medical College of Georgia. Although Mr. Barnes remained noncommittal during a visit last week to MCG, nothing he said dissuaded the group.

"He said he doesn't want any center that's not moving toward National Cancer Institute designation," Dr. Howington said. "I can't see in my wildest imagination how that can occur outside of Augusta."

But Savannah's boosters also are making a case for their city. Mr. Barnes was in Savannah for February's ground-breaking ceremony for a cancer center at Memorial Health.

"We're hoping to dovetail with the governor's plan sometime in the future," said Bob Colvin, the facility's president and CEO.

Mr. Colvin also argues that Savannah is a good place for a top-tier cancer center because it has the amenities to attract world-class researchers and clinicians and, as a favorite with tourists, would provide an attractive atmosphere for families who would travel with cancer patients.

When Mr. Barnes first proposed the three cancer centers in November, state Community Health Commissioner Russ Toal predicted that one of the facilities would be in a rural area. Statistics show that rural counties have some of Georgia's highest cancer death rates.

But Ms. Blumenthal said that doesn't mean that Augusta and Savannah are in a winner-take-all competition for the slot not already filled by Atlanta's Grady.

"There's nothing magical about three cancer centers," she said. "We're trying to get people to think not so much about competing for a cancer center of excellence. We really want them to understand what we're talking about is building a network."

What Ms. Blumenthal envisions is a network of cancer treatment similar to trauma care, where various levels of service are available in communities throughout the state. Each network would be anchored by a major center and would contain satellite facilities.

Whether at the major center or a satellite, the initiative will concentrate first on Georgia's top four fatal cancers: lung, breast, colo-rectal and prostate.

The General Assembly also set aside $125,000 to fight ovarian cancer, an offshoot of a bill lawmakers passed in March requiring insurance companies to pay for tests for women 35 and older considered at risk for ovarian cancer.

"Ovarian cancer is a silent killer," said Rep. Dorothy Pelote, D-Savannah, who sponsored a resolution the legislature approved this year declaring April Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. "By the time a woman finds out about it, nine times out of 10, it's too late."

The next step for the coalition will be getting its staff in place. Ms. Blumenthal said an executive director will be hired "very soon." Once that's done, board appointments should follow.

Funding allocation

The General Assembly has appropriated nearly $61 million for Gov. Roy Barnes' cancer initiative during the year since the governor unveiled the effort. The following are some of the items the money will be spent on:

Item; Amount

Create a Cancer Center of Excellence at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta; $28.4 million

Matching endowments for five Georgia Research Alliance eminent scholars, plus equipment; $6.4 million

Cancer treatment for uninsured patients with family incomes below 200 percent of federal poverty level; $6.0 million

Continue smoking prevention and cessation programs aimed at young people; $ 5.2 million

Establish programs and fund incentives to support 30 eminent cancer researchers; $4.8 million

Cancer screening and prevention services for uninsured patients with family incomes below 200 percent of federal poverty level; $873,000

Equipment for Division of Public Health clinic to detect cervical cancer; $655,000

Funds for Ovarian Cancer Alliance; $125,000

Sources: Governor's Office of Planning and Budget, Georgia General Assembly

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.