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Biden administration official visits UVa to kick off new Cancer Moonshot partnership

A White House official traveled to Charlottesville on Monday to celebrate the significant steps the University of Virginia Health System has taken to better care for its cancer patients as well as a new partnership with the Biden administration that both institutions promise will only improve that level of care.

Danielle Carnival, deputy assistant to President Biden under his Cancer Moonshot program, toured UVa’s Comprehensive Cancer Center before meeting with its doctors, nurses and patients.

Her appearance came on the heels of a new development announced by the White House’s Cancer Moonshot, a program aimed at eradicating cancer that was started in 2016 by then-Vice President Biden after his son died of brain cancer.

On the evening of the president’s State of the Union address last week, the administration announced it had created new “navigation codes” which will allow seven major health insurance companies representing 150 million Americans access to what are known as nurse navigators: medical workers who help guide patients through the confusing process of cancer treatment.

“When somebody receives the diagnosis of cancer, it’s very, very scary,” UVa Health CEO Craig Kent said Monday. “We want to be able to reach out to those individuals immediately with what we call a nurse navigator and send a reassuring message that we’re going to take great care of you at UVa Health.”

A navigator gets to know a patient, helping to explain their diagnosis, coordinating schedules and making them aware of all the complexities of patient care.

“The consequence is when the patient finally shows up in front of the doctor, the doctor knows the history of all the different symptoms and diagnosis and can make a good treatment plan for that patient,” said Kent. “So nurse navigators are a way of taking more efficient care of cancer patients.”

Forty cancer treatment facilities nationwide have pledged to utilize the new navigation codes created by the Biden Moonshot, allowing more patients access to a navigator. UVa is one of them, in part because navigators are already something the university health system has been providing.

“UVa was ahead of us,” said Carnival. “We didn’t select them. They selected themselves.”

“UVa was one of 40 cancer centers and community cancer providers across the country that stepped up and said, ‘We want to be a part of this. We want to say right now that we’re going to provide these services and that we’re going to report back on how they’re working,’” Carnival said.

Touring the halls of the cancer center, Carnival congratulated staff on what she called a “beautiful facility.”

She later sat down with 25 people to learn about how the nurse navigation system works at UVa. Navigators told her that they help patients with anything from explaining test results to letting them know where to park when they come to the facility for treatment. Without that help, all of the burden falls onto the patient, they said, who not only has to contend with the fear of a cancer diagnosis but also the complicated logistics of treatment.

Navigators streamline the process.

“It’s really to have someone by your side from the moment you get diagnosed, helping you make decisions, helping you understand the cancer that you’re facing, helping you understand the treatment that you’re going to be receiving,” said Carnival. “Maybe travel is a barrier for you. How do we make sure that your appointments are all stacked on the same day so that you’re not having to make extra trips?”

Gina Cunningham, a nurse navigator that met with Carnival, said that their work takes a significant load off of patients.

“So all the patient has to worry about is showing up,” Cunningham said.

One recently diagnosed patient told Carnival how helpful navigators have been for her.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing for educating people and making them more comfortable and not making the C-word so scary,” she said.

According to Kent, many centers do not have nurse navigators on staff. UVa Health has some in its breast cancer and hematologic diseases departments. It had been covering the cost on its own, but now that the Cancer Moonshot program has made it possible for large insurance companies to pay, UVa plans to hire more navigators in more of its cancer units.

“We had such great success with our first units that we tried this out with that we’re going to try to do it across our cancer center,” said Kent. “I would say in some ways we’re leading the way. And it’s working so well for us that we want to tell the rest of the world that this is the direction they should head.”

The Moonshot program is part of what Biden’s administration is calling the “Unity Agenda,” a series of policies he hopes all Americans can get behind.

Established after the death of Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, the president’s eldest son, of glioblastoma, the Moonshot has two goals set by the president and first lady Jill Biden: “To prevent more than 4 million cancer deaths by 2047 and to improve the experience of people who are touched by cancer.”

By enabling more insurers to cover the cost of navigators, thus giving patients more access to their services, the administration has taken a step toward improving that experience.

“We’re going to keep working with payers and providers across the country to make sure that more Americans receive these services,” said Carnival. “They were already starting like here at UVa, but now they’re’ going to be a core part of the system that’s recognized and valued.”


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