Precisely Where Is the Problem?

  • by: |
  • 07/26/2006

I see that today’s USA Today has an article about an unfortunate soul with what appears to be terminal colon cancer, the treatment of which has “cost his health plan and family more than $150,000.” Like that NBA player some years back who combined with Michael Jordan for 68 points in a game—-Jordan scored 66 of them—-this patient has spent “more than $12,000 out-of-pocket,” a good part of which has been “for frequent trips to Oklahoma City and Houston to visit specialists,” out of that $150,000 plus. The article is vague in the extreme about the precise proportion of this patient’s care represented by drug therapies.

Well, anyway: This man is using insurance coverage precisely as it should be used in an efficient insurance market—-as protection against financial catastrophe rather than as pre-payment—-but somehow the article spends little time getting to the main point, to wit, the editorial about the evils of the pharmaceutical producers. The feds do not negotiate drug prices. The taxpayers subsidize Big Pharma through the NIH, and then have to pay high prices anyway. Prices for cancer drugs increased 22 percent in 2005, as compared with 3 percent for other drugs. And so on.

Excuse me, but does anyone at USA Today have a sense of what a drug costs when it is not available? In the article, the patient wonders if some additional months of life are worth all the costs—-this is a rare man indeed who cares so very deeply about his insurance company—-and his kids are unanimous in the affirmative. And so in the absence of the hundreds of millions of dollars spend by Genentech to develop Avastin, does USA Today believe that the resulting increased death rates and shorter lives ought to be viewed as “savings?” When an expensive drug is developed, the cost of the attendant improved treatment falls from infinite to something lower. Or relatively cheaper drug therapy is substituted for something else. Why is that a problem? This article is further evidence in support of the proposition that the public discussion of drug costs truly is appalling.


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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