By GINA SMITH, gnsmith@thestate.com

Thousands more South Carolinians with cancer on July 1 will be able to participate in clinical drug trials and rest assured their routine patient care will be paid for by their private insurance company.

Tuesday, the S.C. Cancer Alliance, state lawmakers, an alliance of health insurance providers and others announced a voluntary agreement in which cancer patients covered by the state’s biggest insurance companies, including BlueCross BlueShield, will be provided a continuum of care while undergoing trials to discover new life-saving drugs.

Until now, many S.C. cancer patients had to choose between paying out of pocket for their care while participating in clinical trials or forgoing the trials because their insurance companies would not pay for their routine care during the trials.

“We’re making something available to cancer patients that they’ve never had before,” said Rep. Bill Sandifer, R-Oconee, who helped facilitate the voluntary agreement.

Rep. Cathy Harvin, D-Clarendon, a cancer patient since 2001 who undergoes chemotherapy every three weeks, said the agreement ensures that new life-saving drugs will be approved at a faster pace and give cancer patients another affordable treatment option.

Thirty-three other states and Washington, D.C., have such agreements or legislation that requires insurance companies to pay for care during clinical trials, according to the S.C. Alliance of Health Plans.

“Clinical trials often offer the best treatment available – and the best hope for a cure – for cancer patients fighting to defeat their disease and save their lives,” said Don Simmons, director of the S.C. Cancer Alliance.

About 22,000 South Carolinians will be diagnosed with cancer this year while about 100,000 are currently living with the disease, said Terri Matson, research director for the clinical trials office at MUSC’s Hollings Cancer Center.

She estimates about 1,000 cancer clinical trials are ongoing in different parts of the state.