Nearly everyone in the United States has been affected by a cancer diagnosis, and those who have helped a family member fight cancer know how the cost of the drugs alone can be devastating. The Pintas & Mullins Law Firm has been representing clients fighting cancer for many years, which has given us a unique look into the reality of paying for cancer treatment while battling a catastrophic illness. Here, we detail the personal effects of cancer treatment and the pharmaceutical industry's role in this issue.
We rely on lifesaving drugs particularly in cancer treatment because most funding pours into pharmaceutical developments and studies. The costs, however, are egregious: the average drug is about $100,000 per year. This is on top of other treatment types, such as radiation, surgery, and other potential drugs. This issue was recently profiled on 60 Minutes by journalist Lesley Stahl. Throughout the program Stahl interviewed doctors at world renowned cancer centers along with lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry.
The program highlighted the significant burden these costs are for patients and their families, including the increasing rate of bankruptcy caused by cancer treatment - in fact, it is one of the leading causes of personal bankruptcy. The tern 'financial toxicity' is widely used now to refer to this bankruptcy phenomenon, which many experts consider "unreasonable, unsustainable, and immoral."
One of the doctors interviewed prominent American doctors who are actively revolting against the rising drug prices. Among them is Dr. Saltz, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Dr. Saltz went to the forefront of the fight against rising cancer drug costs in 2012, after Zaltrap was introduced to treat colon cancer. Zaltrap is remarkably similar to the drug Avastin, but it costs more than twice Avastin, at more than $11,000 per month.
Doctors at Sloan Kettering rejected Zaltrap because of its inflated price, an unprecedented move among cancer centers. Taking it one step further, they also wrote about their decision in the New York Times; after it was published, the price of Zaltrap dropped more than half. This was irrefutable proof that pricing is falsely inflated.
Drug companies state that it costs them $1 billion to develop new cancer drugs, and the high prices reflect the price of these technologies. The American drug pricing system is exclusively dictated by drug companies, who attempt to pander responsibility off to insurance companies.
Whomever is to blame, it boils down to one choice for patients: either you pay the incredibly costs, possibly putting your family into bankruptcy, or you die. In a revolt against this, nearly 120 of the world's leading leukemia doctors signed an article regarding the exorbitantly high prices of drugs that could add significant lengths of time to patients' lives, if only they could afford them.
A particularly egregious example is Gleevec, used to treat leukemia, which is considered one of the best cancer drugs ever. It allows patients to live their normal lives and extends lives for years, however, the price for Gleevec has tripled since 2001. It now costs $92,000 per year, and brings in billions of dollars in salves every year to its manufacruter, Novartis. Novartis has been raising the prices on its older drugs habitually, to cover the "investments needed to continue to innovate."
Most experts agree that the one factor that can and should be immediately changed are the laws regarding Medicare drug pricing. Currently, Medicare pays the exact same amount the drug companies charge wholesale, and no negotiations for lower pricing is permissible. This is a law unique to the United States - every other country allows for negotiations, and is why drug prices are 50 to 80% lower in every other country in the world for the same drug.