Innovative health care reform because a big insurer and a major medical center wanted to save lives and money.

I have the feeling that if we had transported all the politicians bickering over improving access to health care to a community college in Michigan today they would have gotten a lesson in how to do what has to be done.

About 400 physicians gathered in Lansing to hear top doctors and senior insurance officials lay out a pioneering plan to detect and treat cancers.

harbutDepending on what studies you read, somewhere between 30 percent and 80 percent of all cancers are caused by exposure to cancer-causing agents in the workplace or the environment. This is what this unique program strives to halt.

In a marriage more typically found in hell, Blue Cross-Blue Shield and Michigan’s largest cancer center – Karmanos Cancer Institute – linked up to attack cancers caused by exposure to arsenic, asbestos and radon.

The broker of this unlikely wedding was Dr. Michael Harbut, a leading specialist in occupational and environmental cancers who is co-Director of the National Center for Vermiculite/Asbestos-Related Cancers at Karmanos.

He told me about the plan a few months ago at a great Chinese restaurant in Seattle’s International District.  His enthusiasm was so infectious that the cook peered out the door to watch.

“It’s so simple” he gushed. “We know arsenic and asbestos kills. If we can find the cancer early and treat it, lives will be saved.

“If we can discover that the patients are being exposed to arsenic in their drinking water and give them clean water, lives will be saved.”

“There is nothing magic about this,” the doctor said, “it’s just medicine being practiced properly without political games.”

The plan says that over the next 18-months, the Blues and Karmanos will recruit and train about 3,000 MDs. They will pay them $500 to take the training and pay them again to test symptom-free patients to determine whether they have or may get cancer.

The docs will conduct relatively inexpensive urine tests to see whether their patients have been exposed to arsenic. If so, the insurance company will pay for special filters to remove arsenic from drinking water. If that’s not practical, bottled water will be supplied.

Yes, the Blues will lay out a lot of money in this program. But it will be just a tiny friction of what the medical care would cost if the cancers fully developed.

So both money and lives are saved. What an idea.

For a more detailed version of this story see what I wrote on

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