As Drug Prices Soar, Doctors Voice Outrage
Policy + Politics

As Drug Prices Soar, Doctors Voice Outrage


Recent breakthroughs in cancer treatment come with a hefty price tag.

In 2014, virtually every new cancer-treatment drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration was priced at more than $120,000 a year, according to a new study. And the cost for each additional year lived by a patient as a result of new drugs soared from $54,000 in 1995 to $207,000 in 2013.

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A commentary by more than 100 cancer specialists published Thursday by the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings voiced outrage over soaring cancer drug prices and renewed a call for tough new federal regulations to rein in prices. Specific proposals include changing federal law to permit Medicare officials to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies for lower prices and permitting the import of cheaper drugs from Canada.

“There is no relief in sight because drug companies keep challenging the market with even higher prices,” the oncologists wrote. “This raises the question of whether current pricing of cancer drugs is based on reasonable expectation of return on investment or whether it is based on what prices the market can bear.”

Major pharmaceutical companies have argued for years that the higher drug prices reflect the substantial cost of researching and producing new wonder drugs and that more emphasis should be placed on the benefits they provide to patients. “The fact is that the type of progress we’ve seen in cancer care does not come easy,” Robert Zirkelbach, senior vice president of communications for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, told The Washington Post. “Developing new treatments and cures is a very long, a very complex and a very costly process.”

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Industry critics are not buying that argument. The cancer doctors’ lament is only the latest in a growing demand by physicians, insurers, state Medicaid officials and members of Congress to do something about run-away prescription drug prices, which increased by more than 12 percent last year – the biggest annual increase in the past decade.

In the past several years, new specialized medications have substantially boosted the cost of treatments for cancer, hepatitis C, cystic fibrosis and other diseases.

Sovaldi and Harvoni, the new miracle drugs made by Gilead Sciences to treat the potentially deadly hepatitis C liver virus, have become the poster children of runaway drug costs: The retail cost of the drugs is between $84,000 and $94,500 for a 12-week regimen. The drugs are far ahead of other treatments and procedures in saving lives, but the math works out to be a startling $1,000 per pill for Sovaldi and $1,125 per pill for Harvoni.

Yet the hepatitis C treatment costs are only the tip of the iceberg. The United Auto Workers Retiree Medical Benefits Trust has loudly complained about how Gilead and other pharmaceutical companies set prices, citing the more than $300,000 per year price of Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ cystic fibrosis drug Kalydeco and the $150,000 annual price for Celgene’s cancer drug Revlimid.

On Tuesday, Medicare’s board of trustees warned that these costly, breakthrough medications will help drive a sharp increase in the program’s prescription-drug spending over the next decade, raising annual growth to 9.7 percent between 2015 and 2024, from 6.5 percent in the prior eight years.

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These soaring costs are forcing the VA, Medicaid and other programs to in some cases limit or ration the availability of these drugs to the neediest patients, because of the unsustainable growth in their prescription drug budgets. Moreover, cancer patients “have to make difficult choices between spending their incomes on potentially lifesaving therapies or forgoing treatment to provide for family necessities,” the oncologists wrote in the journal commentary today. Consequently, about 10 percent to 20 percent of cancer patients don’t take their treatment as prescribed, according to the article.

Among the recommendations made by the doctors in the Mayo journal:

  • Create a review procedure for proposing a fair price for new treatments based on the value to patients and health care.
  • Change the law to allow Medicare officials to negotiate drug prices, as other government entities are allowed to do.
  • Allow the import of cancer drugs across borders for personal use, including from Canada, where drugs can be purchased for about half the price in the U.S.
  • Pass legislation to prevent drug companies from delaying access to generic drugs.