New Cancer Drugs: Affordable by the 1 Percent?
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The Fiscal Times
January 23, 2012

Julie Grabow, an oncologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, recently prescribed an exciting new therapy for a 60-year-old woman with metastatic breast cancer. Three-and-a-half years into her battle against the disease, the patient had already exhausted three different anti-estrogen therapies, each of which only put a temporary check on the spreading tumors.

The newly prescribed drug, Novartis’ Afinitor, is one of the recently approved targeted therapies that have generated a lot of excitement among cancer patients and oncologists in recent years. Drugs that target just the cancer cells promise the same or better results as toxic chemotherapy, but with far fewer side effects.

There was a catch, though. Like many of the latest cancer drugs, Novartis is charging exorbitant amounts for the treatment – in this case, $10,000 per month. That quickly put an end to that possibility for Grabow’s patient. Her monthly co-payment, even after her insurance company agreed to pay its share of the off-label use the drug (the Food and Drug Administration has only approved Afinitor for kidney and pancreatic cancer, not breast cancer), was $2,900.

“She can’t afford this, even though it’s potentially a less toxic and potentially equally effective regimen,” Grabow said. “Chemo will help her, and it’s a reasonable choice. But that choice is 100 percent driven by economics.”

Unaffordable new drugs, even when covered by insurance, are being rationed by price.

Over the past year, official Washington and candidates on the campaign trail have locked horns over the best way to curb rising health insurance costs. The public has been bombarded with dueling slogans – Republicans vowing to fight the “death panels” and “rationing” of Obamacare while Democrats promise “guaranteed access” and “affordability” with the Affordable Care Act.

But an economic drama that neither side wants to confront is playing itself out in cancer wards and oncologists’ offices across the country. Unaffordable new drugs, even when they’re covered by insurance, are being rationed by price as patients, doctors and hospital officials struggle with what is likely to be the most pressing problem for the nation’s health care system over the next decade: how to pay for the spectacular rise in the cost of cancer care, especially drugs and diagnostic tests.

spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.