New Hope In Cancer Fight

When all standard therapy failed to slow Lou Pennucci's lung cancer, wondering if his insurance company would pay for anything experimental was agonizing.

"It's almost like being told you're getting the electric chair, or somebody's playing Russian roulette with your life," Pennucci says.

Now cancer patients in New Jersey will never have to wonder the way Lou did, reports CBS News Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin. At a press conference Thursday a coalition of insurers announced they will be the first in the nation to cover experimental treatments approved by federal health agencies.

"This agreement is going to be a model for other states and will put New Jersey on the fast track in the fight against cancer," says Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

According to the National Cancer Institute, hundreds of new treatments -- from new drugs to gene therapy -- are currently in development. For many patients, clinical trials represent state of the art, last chance care. But of the 20 percent of adult cancer patients eligible to take part, less than three percent actually do.

"What we've done today is eliminate one barrier to enrollment in clinical trials," says Dr. Mary Todd of the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. "That one barrier is cost. It's only through enrollment of patients in clinical trials that we can improve the outcomes of cancer patients."

Insurers, long vilified for rejecting most experimental treatment outright, say the change in attitude is good for them as well as patients.

"Our plans will have a very fast, hopefully effective, way to get them to the right place at the right time," says Paul Langevin, president of the New Jersey Association of Health Plans. "That's positive, that's very positive and its good business sense as well."

The move comes at a time when the federal government is being heavily lobbied to mandate insurance coverage of experimental treatments. The hope is that if New Jersey can do it voluntarily, other states will follow suit, avoiding new laws and more tension between insurers and patients.