Monday March 19th 2018

Appeal board rejects MS treatment claim

A tribunal has rejected an Eastern Ontario woman’s bid to force the Ontario Health Insurance Plan to pay for a controversial treatment that relieved her multiple sclerosis symptoms.

Judy Butcher, a 48-year-old resident of Jasper, Ont., near Merrickville, paid $7,000 for balloon angioplasty to open blocked neck veins at a clinic in Egypt on March 5, 2011.

Butcher was diagnosed with MS in 1996. It had progressed to the point that she was confined to a wheelchair and frequently in excruciating pain.

But after undergoing so-called “liberation treatment” — pioneered by Italian vascular surgeon Paolo Zamboni — Butcher’s pain subsided and circulation improved. She now walks with a cane and has been able to regain her driver’s licence.

Despite that, when she applied for reimbursement, her claim was rejected by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) because the treatment is considered experimental and unproven in Canada.

Butcher appealed OHIP’s decision to the Health Services Appeal and Review Board, which heard the case in February. She received the board’s 18-page decision Monday.

In rejecting her appeal, the board found that the evidence “strongly suggests that the treatment is generally accepted in Ontario as experimental. Ontario experts in general are of the view that, based on the research, the treatment is not yet proven and requires more investigation.”

Based on that, the board concluded that the angioplasty treatment performed on Butcher in Egypt “is not prescribed as an insured service of OHIP.” The board had previously rejected two other appeals from MS patients who underwent the Zamboni procedure.

In an interview, Butcher said she was disappointed by the decision, but not surprised.

“I was kind of expecting it. They’re bound and determined to not recognize this procedure,” she said. “Obviously they knew that if this case was decided in my favour, it would set a precedent.”

Since Zamboni published his study in 2009 suggesting a link between MS and blocked veins in the neck — a condition known as chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI) — more than 12,000 patients worldwide have undergone the treatment worldwide, including hundreds of Canadians.

In this country, though, Zamboni’s treatment has encountered stiff opposition from a medical establishment unconvinced of its benefits.

Last year, the federal government agreed to fund clinical trials after a panel of experts agreed there was sufficient evidence to warrant them.

And earlier this year, the government of Saskatchewan began funding 88 patients from the province to participate in clinical trials now underway in Albany, New York. No results have yet been reported.

At the February hearing, Butcher argued there is already enough evidence that the treatment relieves symptoms for many MS patients. Hundreds will die unnecessarily if treatment is denied until clinical trials are completed several years from now, she said.

“I don’t know why on earth they’re not listening to Dr. Zamboni,” Butcher said Monday. “He’s a 30-year vascular surgeon. They don’t seem to get it that 13 (MS patients) are passing every month in Canada.”

Butcher said she is considering an appeal of the board’s decision to Ontario’s Divisional Court. She has already filed a human rights complaint about OHIP’s refusal to pay for the treatment and plans to file a complaint with Ontario Ombudsman André Marin as well.

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