He Set Up a Dallas Buyers Club to Provide Cancer Drugs to Romania
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because cancer drugs can’t help if patients can’t access them.
It was an unexpected move when 33-year-old Vlad Voiculescu was appointed Romania’s health minister in May 2016. An economist with no formal medical training, Voiculescu had served as vice president of the European Cancer Patient Coalition and set up a cancer-related nongovernmental organization. His main qualification, however, came from funneling hard-to-get cancer drugs into Romania — medicines that should have been readily available but were in chronic short supply.
The ministerial job was going to last for only eight months — after which a parliamentary election would bring in a new government — but for Voiculescu, it was an opportunity to tackle a health care system considered among the worst in the European Union, plagued by issues ranging from endemic corruption to lack of resources (Voiculescu’s predecessor had resigned over a scandal involving watered-down disinfectant in hospitals).
“Many people have a need to make a difference, and in our times and in my country, the place where I could make a difference was health care,” Voiculescu says, sitting in the offices of MagiCamp, the NGO he co-founded in 2014 that runs summer camps for children with cancer.
We are struggling day by day.
Oana Iaru, a doctor at the Bucharest Institute of Oncology
The decision to join the government also amplified Voiculescu’s voice as a leader among younger Romanians. In 2017, half a million Romanians took to the streets to stop the government from advancing legislation weakening anti-corruption efforts. Last month Voiculescu, now part of a civil society platform pushing for political change, told a local radio station he planned to run for mayor of Bucharest, the capital, in 2020.
Voiculescu grew up in Romania but moved to Austria when he was 18 for university. He stayed, working for 14 years in banking. In 2008, a high school friend who had become a doctor contacted him to lament the lack of essential drugs back home. Voiculescu visited a pharmacy in Vienna and, after describing the situation to the owner, was allowed to buy 300 euros’ worth of cancer drugs, which he brought to Romania. “Statistically speaking, if you take the usual rate of an 80 percent five-year survival rate for kids with cancer, I basically saved three kids with 300 euros. You don’t get to do that too often,” he says.
It was the start of a journey that led to Voiculescu establishing a sort of Dallas Buyers Club for Romania. Using his own travels, and later enlisting colleagues, friends, friends of friends and anyone offering to help, Voiculescu formed a network that, at its 2012 peak, brought in up to 6,000 euros’ worth of drugs a month, mostly cancer drugs and almost exclusively items on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines. Voiculescu would raise the money through donations and patient associations as well as from the patients themselves and his own money.
The network is still active, and in 2015 HBO Romania made a documentary about their work. “I have a list, which is incomplete, with over 2,000 patients, and over 400 people who have contributed by looking, buying and transporting the drugs,” he says.
In early 2016, Voiculescu quit his banking job and returned to Romania. A technocratic government had recently been installed, replacing a government that resigned in the wake of a nightclub fire that killed 64 people (lax fire safety regulations were blamed). Voiculescu was initially brought in to work for the finance ministry, before being offered the health minister job.
It was a stark change for someone accustomed to fighting the system from the outside. “What shocked the medical establishment was that it was for the first time that a radical critic of the system was taking command,” says Sergiu Miscoiu, a professor of political science at Babes-Bolyai University. “The result was the most courageous action of reform over a system that has been in a coma for decades.”
The team Voiculescu created, many of them young Romanians who had left private sector jobs overseas to join him, worked to increase transparency and accountability in the system, as well as improve conditions for doctors. “I thought that if anyone really wanted to do something in the health sector, this was the time,” says Adrian Gheorghe, a health economist based in Oxford, England, who persuaded his bosses to let him work part-time in order to support Voiculescu’s efforts. They also drafted a list of essential medicines, introduced into legislation, to ensure their availability on the Romanian market.
Dishearteningly, since he left office in early 2017, a number of key policies have been reversed or drastically amended. Voiculescu has publicly clashed with one of his successors, Florian Bodog, who in turn labeled him the “Facebook minister,” preoccupied with his online image. Bodog added that “Romanians need to know the reality and must know that this former minister has done nothing during his mandate to solve any problem.”
“A world where you work like hell and implement some policies and then they are just being dismantled out of either interest or pure stupidity, it does leave a mark on you,” says Voiculescu.
He’s remained involved in charity work. In November, MagiCamp opened Magic Home, a place to stay for parents of children receiving treatment for cancer, funded through hundreds of thousands of small donations. And this year, Voiculescu was awarded an Eisenhower global fellowship, given to innovative leaders who are tackling “big challenges to better the world around them.”
With the 2020 electoral season a long way off, it’s too soon to say whether he will forge a career in politics, but Voiculescu’s passion and resolve have already galvanized others fed up with the hobbled health care system in Romania.
“We are struggling day by day,” says Oana Iaru, a doctor at the Bucharest Institute of Oncology, who knows Voiculescu and continues to benefit from the drugs he helps bring into the country. “He’s fighting his way, and he’s giving us hope and the power of an example.”