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LLS and volunteers cheer California laws promoting health equity

By Brianna Wilson, Senior Manager, Advocacy Communications | October 03, 2022
All patients deserve quality cancer care that's within reach; hands reaching up

LLS and blood cancer advocates are celebrating after our efforts helped make two bills become law in California, advancing health equity and improving cancer care for thousands.

Charlie’s Law 

After seeing firsthand how difficult it could be for non-White patients to find a match for bone marrow transplants, LLS advocate Charlie Huang sprang into action.

“Leukemia was threatening my life, and there was no one who could protect me from it,” he wrote in an op-ed in The Mercury News, one of the state’s largest newspapers. “Determined to find a solution to help all patients, especially patients from minority communities, I sat in my hospital bed and drafted a state bill.” 

Bone marrow transplants often are critical, life-saving treatments for blood cancer patients—but not all patients have an equal chance of finding a match. White patients have a 79% chance of finding a match—as opposed to 48% who are Latino, 47% who are Asian and Pacific Islander, and 29% who are Black.

Charlie’s Law will give 18- to 35-year-old Californians the opportunity to sign up for the National Marrow Donor Program’s registry when they apply for a new or renewed driver’s license. Based on the organ donation registration process, the bill aims to increase diversity in the registry so that patients—especially those from underrepresented communities—have a better chance of finding a match.

The law, which passed unanimously, is the third of its kind in the U.S. LLS played a crucial role in passing similar legislation in Texas last year, and Washington passed its version in 2018. 

Potential donors identified in California’s diverse population will have the opportunity to help patients across the country.

California Cancer Care Equity Act 

About a third of Californians rely on Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid health insurance program for individuals with low incomes, for their health insurance. But those in the program are less likely to survive cancer compared to patients covered by private insurance.

This may be partly because Medi-Cal recipients cannot always access the type of specialized care that they need. Patients receiving care from specialists are 53% less likely to die earlier. 

Often, patients with complex medical conditions like blood cancer need specialized care. However, too many Medi-Cal patients encounter unnecessary barriers or delays in care when they try to get referred to specialized cancer providers. In fact, 11.5% of Californians covered by Medi-Cal have difficulty finding specialty care. This may be, in part, because specialty care is not always in-network for patients. Nearly one in five patients say Medi-Cal is not accepted by the medical specialist they need.    

The California Cancer Care Equity Act hopes to change that by allowing Medi-Cal patients with specific cancer diagnoses—including multiple myeloma, leukemia, and certain lymphomas—to be treated at specialty cancer centers, even if the center is not included in the patient’s provider network. Seeking care from cancer centers can give patients a better chance of accessing new therapies, clinical trials, and specialists. 

The new law is a key step toward health equity. Most Medi-Cal recipients are non-White; 49.1% are Hispanic, 9.5% are Asian/Pacific Islander, and 7.1% are Black. And, Medi-Cal covers 31.7% of male and 39.2% of female Hispanic/Latinx Californians, and 27.4% of male and 31% of female Black Californians.

Earlier this year, LLS helped expand access to NCI-designated cancer centers in New York. California’s new law means that two of the most populated states in the country will have more equitable access to care. 

“All patients deserve access to the treatment best suited to their needs — but historically, in California, they haven’t gotten that,” says Thea Zajac, California advocacy senior director for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. “This landmark reform will enable the healthcare system in California to better serve cancer patients and their families. This new law is crucial to ensuring that all Californians with cancer can access the lifesaving treatment that’s right for them.”

What’s next?

These California laws won’t fix health equity—but they’re a start. In line with LLS’s commitment to curing blood cancer for everyone, we will continue advocating for policies that support diversity, equity, and inclusion for all, regardless of the state in which patients reside.

Want to help advance health equity?

Sign up to become an LLS advocate here, and we’ll let you know when and how you can send messages to your members of Congress about health equity issues that impact blood cancer patients.