Liz Szabo Szlips Up Again

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  • 07/26/2006

Liz Szabo龝 article in USA Today (“Cancer care can sap a lifetime of savings”) mixes poor research and reporting to stretch one survivor龝 pungent views about the price of cancer drugs into a conclusion that cancer drug prices are too high and should be controlled by the federal government. Corrections and context are in order. Szabo claims a study from the journal Cancer, published by the American Cancer Society, states that one in five cancer patients have delayed or missed treatments because of cost. That is untrue as written. The study found that delays or missed treatment were largely due to cost among cancer survivors who were uninsured, unemployed and low income. Thus the study refers to post treatment status where the cost issue deals with seeking physician care. And that is a function of coverage and income, not drug prices.

Ms. Szabo could have written a compelling article about the financial, emotional and physical challenges the survivor, Frank Beck, is facing after beating back late stage colon cancer. Instead, she makes it about the price of cancer drugs. Mr. Beck spent $12000 of his own money on various goods and services, no doubt on cancer drugs as well. Despite the fact that he had to pay a large chunk of the price of the drug out of pocket begs the question as to why he did not seek out help from the companies who make the medicine or why she regards a health plan that would require a cancer patient to pay a percentage of the price of anew cancer drug or cancer surgery to be “good” coverage.

Szabo implies the price of cancer drugs should be lower because the National Cancer Institute discovered or developed half of all cancer treatments in use. Again, not exactly the truth. The National Cancer Institute states that it龝 involvement in early stage of development resulted in products which eventually were licensed to commercial organizations and reached the market. That龝 something quite different. And it goes out of its way to note that drug development is largely carried out in the private sector and that most of the drugs it had a hand in are 20 years old. NCI spends $300 million on discovery and development. That龝 less than one tenth of what companies and spend on the same activities. To suggest that taxpayers are paying twice for the same drug is nonsense in two respects. There is little overlap in the development plans because of failures, dropouts and different objectives. And in some instances the partnership is precisely what makes the medicine possible.

Finally, she holds up the Veterans Affairs drug-purchasing model as an example of how to reduce prices. She quotes Mr. Beck her case study as stating that the VA gets an automatic 24 percent discount But she fails to note prices are mandated by law to be 24 percent lower than the average manufacturer prices in the private sector or companies can穰 sell to Medicare or Medicaid. That龝 price controls What龝 more, the VA limits access to new drugs to keep costs down. Mr. Beck might be frustrated by the high price of the drugs he takes, Erbitux and Avastin perhaps among them for his late stage colon cancer. But he would be frustrated even more by the fact that in the VA system they are not on the formulary for use. Chances are he wouldn穰 be alive to tell his story to Szabo if the VA approach lauded for its price punishing power were in place.


Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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