Some life-saving cancer drugs are so expensive that patients must choose between paying unaffordable out-of-pocket costs and not taking those drugs.
Attention recently has been focused on "targeted" drugs, which block the growth and spread of cancer by interfering with specific molecules involved in tumor growth and progression.
A case in point is Gleevec, the drug for chronic myeloid leukemia, which is extremely profitable for the pharmaceutical company Novartis. It has the potential to transform the sometimes fatal chronic disease into a manageable condition like diabetes.
Newer oral medications that target cancer cells include Tykerb (for breast cancer) and Erivedge, which shuts down the genetic mutation causing basal cell carcinoma to spread.
In an example of failing to keep up with the rapid changes in cancer treatment, insurance often covers the cost of IV treatments generously but charges up to 50 percent for oral cancer drugs, even if they’re the only ones that work.
Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) recently introduced the Cancer Drug Parity Act, which would require health plans to offer the same co-pays for oral medications as for drugs administered by a doctor. The bill was introduced in April to a congressional committee, which will consider sending it to the full House and Senate.
And validating the concerns of financially pinched patients, more than 100 cancer specialists from around the world wrote a commentary last April in Blood, the journal of the American Society of Hematology, saying that the price of some cancer drugs is unaffordable and may even be immoral.
"We believe the unsustainable drug prices in CML and [other] cancers may be causing harm to patients. Advocating for lower drug prices is a necessity to save the lives of patients who cannot afford them," according to the editorial, which also noted high drug prices are among the chief causes of personal bankruptcy.
When imatinib, marketed by Novartis as Gleevec, was first approved in 2001, its cost of $30,000 per year in the United States would have more than recouped the cost of development in two years, the doctors wrote. Since then, the price has more than tripled, perhaps setting the pace for the rising cost of other cancer drugs, they continued.
According to the article, the survival rates for chronic myeloid leukemia are lower then they should be because high costs force some patients to not take their medicine.
In some good news about pricing of anti-cancer drugs, two companies that make vaccines against cervical cancer announced last month that they would cut the cost to the world’s poorest countries to below $5 per dose, making it possible for millions of girls to be protected against cervical cancer.
Because of Pap tests, fatal cervical cancer is rare in rich countries. But Pap tests are impractical in poor countries, and the vaccine has been too expensive for average women to afford.
The World Health Organization called the news "a great step forward for women and girls."
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