USA Today Rushes In With It's Own Cancer Drug Price Story

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  • 07/11/2006

I am receiving lots of interesting emails from patients and groups who take exception to the piece in USA Today about the price of cancer drugs: The article, written by Elizabeth Szabo, parrots the approach formulated by Geete Anand at the WSJ both in terms of bias and sloppiness. It is of the “these drugs are hugely expensive and don’t add much to survival and these drugs are too pricey and people who are dying can’t afford them.” I have yet to figure out how drugs can be both ineffective and essential at the same time, but from Szabo’s rushed perspective being both just adds to the drama and criminality of having to spend, on average $1600 a year on cancer therapy.

The US spends about $24 billion on cancer drugs, less than is spent on cholesterol drugs and slightly more than ulcer medication. Total spending on cancer in the US is $75 billion. That means 32 percent of total spending on cancer is drugs, about average for chronic illness. Meanwhile the total cost of cancer to the US, including lost productivity due to death and illness is approximately $210 billion. By 2010, cancer drug spending will rise to about $55 billion. If we can limit use to those who can benefit the most and increase survival we save billions in productivity costs and quaity of life. Where was Szabo on all this?

1. The claim that most new drugs don’t “cure” cancer but just add a few months of life is meritless. To be sure the recent Tarceva and Gemzar trials showed no survival advantage, but they were genetically non-selective studies. There is no average cancer so there is no average response or survival rate. Many new targeted therapies increase survival signfiicantly for subpopulations precisely because they hit a specific pathway unique to a particular group. The substantial increase in life expectancy is masked by large clinical trials that include non-responders. For many, being disease free for five years with no tumor progression amounts to a cure. And that doesn’t include the cervical cancer vaccine.

2. Doesn’t quality of life matter? If you can life for two years without the horrible effects of cancer or chemotherapy and thereby stay at work, be in school, remain a parent, isn’t that worth something. Revilimid eliminates the terrible trauma associated with extensive and repeated blood transfusions which cost $60000 a year. What about the value of being able to treat the disease without such complications and disabling approaches.

3. Where is the responsibility of insurance companies to cover the cost of cancer medications. Why would it cover the cost of cheaper and less effective drugs but not Avastin or Herceptin? Indeed, tiered copays have been shown to discourage appropriate and cost-effectiveness use of medicines for diabetes and heart disease. Cancer is no exception. Companies should not have to shelling out money for medicines that insurance companies should be paying for.

4. Reducing cancer mortality by even 10 percent would generate over a trillion in productivity in America. Insurance companies might not gain, but we would.

Here’s the real question: Why doesn’t the media analyze the issue of new medical technology from this broader perspective and be more thorough in its investigation of clinical evidence prior to making such assertions as “higher prices but little added benefit.” And why does it focus on the price of medicines rather than the way in which price is used to ration access by health plans when the drugs themselves add significant value to the lives and wellbeing of Americans.


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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