Doctors Slam Big Pharma Over The Sky-High Cost Of Cancer Drugs

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A group of over 100 doctors who specialize in chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) published a detailed editorial in the medical journal Blood on Friday that slams pharmaceutical companies for jacking up cancer medication prices to unaffordable degrees. The open letter also calls for immediate reform to help patients access drugs that mean the difference between life and death for millions of Americans.

The doctors argue that, despite the creativity and innovation involved in creating cancer drugs, pharmaceutical companies still charge far more than they are objectively worth, knowing that patients have no other choice than to pay the prices they dictate. The writers then urge an all-in approach to reforming the U.S. medical culture that facilitates price-gouging at the expense of Americans’ physical and financial health:

If drug price reflects value, then it should be proportional to the benefit to patients in objective measures, such as survival prolongation, degree of tumor shrinkage, or improved quality of life. For many tumors, drug prices do not reflect these endpoints, since most anti-cancer drugs provide minor survival benefits, if at all. For example, in pancreatic cancer, where the median survival is 6 months, a new drug that may prolong survival by 2 months, and is priced at $100,000 per year, will cost $67,000 over 8 months survived, or $33,500 per additional month lived, equivalent to $400,000 per additional year lived. […]

As physicians, we follow the Hippocratic Oath of “Primum non nocere”, first (or above all) do no harm. We believe the unsustainable drug prices in CML and cancer may be causing harm to patients. Advocating for lower drug prices is a necessity to save the lives of patients who cannot afford them. Pricing of cancer and other drugs involves complex societal and political issues which demand immediate attention, and which will need to consider many factors and involve many constituencies…We propose to begin the dialogue by organizing regular meetings, involving all parties concerned, to address the reasons behind high cancer drug prices and offer solutions to reduce them. For CML, and for other cancers, we believe drug prices should reflect objective measures of benefit, but should also not exceed values that harm our patients and societies.

The doctors’ assertions are borne out by the facts. The high costs of treating chronic conditions causes one in four American seniors to go bankrupt. With regard to cancer specifically, the trend is even more pronounced. One study conducted over 14 years in Washington state found a clear relationship between cancer registry data and bankruptcy court records. “Patients diagnosed with cancer may face significant financial stress due to income loss and out-of-pocket costs associated with their treatment,” said health care economist and study author Dr. Scott Ramsey. “On average, bankruptcy rates increased fourfold within five years of diagnosis.”

Pharmaceutical companies often argue that the bloated costs are necessary to cover the substantial research investments and trials-and-error of creating a successful drug. But that logic is undermined by these same companies’ profit-maximizing gimmicks, such as adding inactive ingredients to pills so as to extend expensive brand name drugs’ patents, and paying kickbacks to pharmacies and generic drug manufacturers in exchange for higher market share.

Some developing nations have actually gone beyond the doctors’ suggestions and ruled against brand name cancer drug makers in favor of less costly generic drugs in an effort to help their poor populations access the critical medicines.