While delivering a speech at a large medical research conference this weekend, a prominent cancer doctor seized the opportunity to push back on the high cost of life-saving medication. The rare move, which occurred during an event that’s sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry, reveals health care professionals’ growing frustration with drug pricing.
During the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) — an event featuring presentations about the latest scientific advances in the field that draws thousands of doctors and researchers — Dr. Leonard Saltz was blunt about what he referred to as “the unsustainably high prices of cancer drugs.”
“These drugs cost too much,” Saltz, who’s currently the chief of gastrointestinal oncology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, said on Sunday. “Cancer drug prices are not related to the value of the drug. Prices are based on what has come before and what the seller believes the market will bear.”
Saltz pointed out that the monthly price for cancer drugs in the U.S. has almost doubled over the past decade, skyrocketing from an average of $5,000 per month to an average of nearly $10,000. While insurers do pick up the bulk of those costs, some cancer patients may still be responsible for covering up to 20 percent of their drug payments, which can deter them from using their treatment as recommended.
The high cost of health care is an issue for many Americans who are struggling to pay their bills, but it’s even worse for people with chronic conditions that require regular treatment. Americans battling cancer are twice as likely to go bankrupt from medical costs, even if they do have health insurance.
Saltz specifically criticized an experimental melanoma treatment that’s priced around $295,000 per year. Although doctors are optimistic about the fact that this particular drug cocktail has the potential to extend patients’ lives, the price tag is a big barrier. Saltz pointed out that, if every American with metastatic cancer adopted a drug regimen that costs that much, it would take $174 billion per year to treat them all.
Forbes reporter Matthew Herper, who attended the ASCO meeting, referred to Saltz’ talk as “blistering.” The Wall Street Journal noted that it’s “unusual” for doctors to be so critical of pharmaceutical companies at meetings devoted to research in the field, which are typically sponsored by the industry. Alan Venook of the University of California San Francisco, who invited Saltz to speak at ASCO’s meeting, pointed out that “it’s a tough balancing act,” since drug makers themselves often provide the revenue that scientists need to develop new cancer treatments — so harsh criticism could be seen as “biting the hand that feeds you.”
In an interview with NPR, Saltz brushed aside concerns that criticizing Big Pharma could risk discouraging drug companies from investing in experimental treatments.
“I think that’s one of the talking points of the pharmaceutical industry, but I don’t believe it’s true,” he said. “Ultimately, the industry is going to invest in development of drugs because that’s how they’re going to make a living… It was really my intention not to alienate anyone in this discussion, but rather to get the point across that we have an unsustainable situation that is going to lead to increased disparities in health care and an inability for people to get the drugs they need.”
Saltz isn’t the first to raise serious concerns about the high costs of life-saving treatment. Two years ago, a group of more than 100 doctors specializing in leukemia published an editorial criticizing the sky-high cost of cancer drugs, arguing that the current pricing may actually violate the Hippocratic Oath’s requirement to “do no harm” to patients. Hepatitis C patients have recently rallied against drug companies for pricing treatments as high as $1,000 per pill — a price tag that’s forced government officials to ration treatment among veterans and Medicaid beneficiaries.
The problem extends beyond American patients. On an international scale, the diseases that disproportionately afflict poor people in developing nations receive just a tiny fraction of the world’s pharmaceutical research dollars, since Western drug makers typically develop their products with an eye on a market that can afford to pay more. Even when effective treatments are available, they’re often priced too high for poorer nations to afford.