Every month, MassBio spotlights a member company and the great work they’re doing to advance the life sciences industry and support the patients we serve. In July, we spoke with Shalini Vallabhan, Managing Director, Government Relations for ACS CAN. Shalini has been with the American Cancer Society and ACS CAN for more than 15 years serving in leadership roles to lead advocacy efforts across the New England states and cancer control work across Asia.
Tell us about your organization, its mission, and current initiatives
Treating and reducing pain and suffering from cancer relies as much on public policy as it does on science and medicine. Lawmakers and policymakers at all levels of government play a critical role in decisions that help save lives. The American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), the advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society, works tirelessly to educate the public, elected and government officials, and candidates about cancer’s devastating impact.
We have a nationwide volunteer structure with a presence in all 435 congressional districts. We empower our advocates to influence public policy that will reduce the burden of cancer. We are nonpartisan and the only side we take is the side of cancer patients.
Our public policy priorities are to accelerate cures, improve access to quality care, and reduce tobacco use. Achieving health equity has been and will be the north star of ACS CAN’s work.
How does your organization’s activities help patients now and into the future?
In 2015, ACS CAN launched the One Degree Campaign. At that time, federal funding for medical research had dropped by 24% over 12 years. The campaign set a bold goal – a $6 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which includes a $1 billion increase for the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Within three years, we surpassed this goal! We are witnessing a revolution in cancer diagnostics, immunotherapy, and targeted treatments which has improved patient outcomes. Scientific breakthroughs, which can take decades to see progress, is rooted in NIH and NCI’s investment in scientific discovery.
Reducing the cancer burden depends on access to meaningful health coverage for all. ACS CAN has a long track record of success when it comes to increasing access to quality cancer care within Medicare, Medicaid, and private health insurance. ACS CAN advocates to ensure that patients have affordable, timely access to diagnostics and personalized medicine for their cancer diagnosis.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the life sciences industry today?
Clinical trials enrollment is a challenge for both industry and patients. Enrollment in clinical trials does not accurately reflect the population of cancer patients in our country. Diversifying patient participation in clinical trials is critical to improving patient outcomes – especially outcomes for traditionally underserved populations. ACS CAN has introduced The Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act to address barriers faced by underrepresented populations to participate in clinical trials. We are also working with Congresswoman Diana DeGette and Congressman Fred Upton on their Cures 2.0 legislation to address needed changes to ClinicalTrials.gov and address routine costs for clinical trials that are a barrier to patient access to trials.
What’s next for your organization? What are you focused on in the coming year?
ACS CAN is committed to protecting NIH and NCI funding from cuts that would squander years of progress. Our advocates are in regular communication with their members of Congress reminding them of these critical investments. As the future of the Affordable Care Act is considered, ACS CAN is committed to ensuring lawmakers maintain patient protections that are so important to cancer patients and survivors and ensure insurance coverage is affordable.
In addition, we are excited about projects that will facilitate clinical trial participation. For example, the first project we are looking to launch is to develop a “Blue Button” functionality that will enable site-agnostic trial screening from inside any electronic medical record system. Second, we are focusing on ways to decentralize certain aspects of trials to address the travel and geographic restrictions that often keep patients from participating in trials. The goal is to allow patients to receive as much of their care as possible in the closest appropriate setting, whether that is a local facility or even their home. The regulatory flexibility and site innovation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has moved the needle on such practices rapidly, and our work will focus on patient-centric needs within the public policy realm to facilitate longer term continuation of best practices.
We are stronger with more voices and we urge anyone interested in supporting this lifesaving mission to visit www.fightcancer.org or to reach out to me at Shalini.Vallabhan@cancer.org.
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