Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Depressingly High Costs Of Cancer Medications

The New York Times reports that a newly approved cancer medication that may be able to marginally improve the quality of life for those afflicted with a certain form of cancer costs $30,000 a month.
The price of the new drug, called Folotyn, is at least triple that of other drugs that critics have said are too expensive for the benefits they offer to patients. The colon cancer drug Erbitux, for instance, costs $10,000 a month and the drug Avastin about $8,800 when used to treat lung cancer. The price of Folotyn “seems way higher than I heard of before,” Robert L. Erwin, president of the Marti Nelson Cancer Foundation, a patient advocacy group. “I can’t imagine there not being a backlash against the pricing.”

Drug makers in general have been raising prices sharply in advance of the possible passage of health care overhaul legislation, according to various studies. But the price of cancer drugs has been an issue for several years.

Critics, including many oncologists, say that patients and the health system cannot afford to pay huge prices for drugs that, on average, provide only a few extra months of life at best.

And Folotyn has not even been shown to prolong lives — only to shrink tumors. The drug was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in late September as a treatment for peripheral T-cell lymphoma, a rare and usually aggressive blood cancer that strikes an estimated 5,600 Americans each year. It is available for sale, but its manufacturer, Allos Therapeutics, does not plan to start actively promoting it until January.
A company that seeks to produce a medicine has a limited time in which to recoup the costs for those drugs under existing patent law. If they can't recoup the costs, they can't turn around and engage in further research.

Doctors and patients have to decide whether a drug is cost-effective in their individual cases. That's regardless of the actual cost - whether it's a few hundred bucks or tens of thousands for the course of treatment. But, that's a decision to be made by the patient and doctor and whether they want to incur the costs when a drug is uncertain to make a long term difference.

There's no real way around the high cost of these kinds of drugs, unless the government is going to step in and demand the costs be dropped - and subsidize the costs, which will ultimately result in higher costs spread among many other people.

As it is, the drug manufacturer is providing co-payment assistance and giving the drug free to uninsured patients who cannot pay for it.

If the government steps in to purposefully reduce drug costs by limiting profits and/or the prices charged to patients, the result will likely be the slowdown in research and development of new and improved medications and drugs to fight rare diseases that have a limited target population. Drug companies aren't going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars if they can't recoup that investment.

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