Cancer has become a cash cow for drug companies. Over the past decade, the cost of lifesaving medications has soared to an average of $10,000 a month.
Although pharmaceutical manufacturers maintain that such costs are needed to cover research and development, insurance companies, patients and doctors are outraged at the exorbitant price tag of many new oncology medicines. At more than $100,000 a year, drugs for conditions like chronic myeloid leukemia are out of reach for many patients and threaten to put insurance companies in the red.
The New York Times reported that a coalition of cancer doctors joined together last year to protest the prices of such drugs as “astronomical, unsustainable and perhaps even immoral.”
The problem is that pharmaceutical companies have a lot of leverage when it comes to life-threatening diseases. Patients are desperate to survive and will agitate for drugs that promise a chance to do so – even if the odds aren’t all that impressive.
Doctors also want their patients to get the best new treatments. Insurance companies don’t want to be seen publicly as denying lifesaving therapies. Privately, though, they may worry that unreasonable drug prices will break the bank.
Even when cancer patients have insurance, a 20 percent copay can be devastating when a medication costs at least $115,000 a year, like the leukemia drug Iclusig does. Provenge, a relatively new treatment for prostate cancer, might be considered a “bargain” at $93,000 for a course of treatment.
If such drugs represented an actual cure for cancer, Americans might be more understanding. After all, such medications are expensive to develop. Who wants to put a price tag on a human life? But sadly, most of the expensive new medicines only extend lives a few more months at best. Provenge, for example, offers men an additional survival advantage of about four months on average.
Patients with a cancer diagnosis have enough to worry about. They shouldn’t have to lie awake at night trying to figure out how to stay out of bankruptcy because of unaffordable medicines.
Cancer isn’t the only condition where pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of vulnerable patients. A new drug for hepatitis C called Sovaldi has raised eyebrows because of its $1,000-a-day price tag. Older drugs for this viral disease are less expensive, but come with serious side effects and must be taken much longer. Even so, they are less effective.
A full course of treatment with Sovaldi lasts 12 weeks. That means a patient or his insurance company has to come up with $84,000. In exchange, about nine out of 10 people taking this antiviral medication will be cured. They will not develop liver cancer or need a liver transplant. That’s the justification that the manufacturer offers for its steep price. In other words, Sovaldi is a “bargain.”
Just how many bargains like this can Americans afford? Drug companies are poised to launch a whole new raft of cancer medicines in the next few years. Chances are, they will be even pricier than existing treatments. Given this trend, and the large number of cancer patients in America, the cost of treating cancer could push the health-care system over the brink.