Info Service on Health Issues (May13/03)
Last year we were heartened when doctors at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York refused to use an outrageously overpriced drug for treating advanced colorectal cancer because it was no better than a cheaper (but still costly) alternative. Neither did much to extend a patientนs life. Now the revolt against unjustifiably high cancer drug prices has been joined by more than 100 leukemia experts from more than 15 countries Today's Editorials
In a commentary published online by Blood, the journal of the American Society of Hematology, the experts questioned the morality 0f charging "astronomical" prices that may deprive some needy patients of access to drugs and could undermine the financial sustainability of the American health care system.
Of the 12 drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration for various cancer conditions last year, the experts said, 11 were priced above $100,000 a year. They suggested that charging high prices for drugs that are needed to save lives or improve health is a form of profiteering like jacking up the price of necessities after a natural disaster.
The experts focused primarily on the cancer they know best, chronic myeloid leukemia, and the drugs used to treat it, whose costs, they said, can rise to $138,000 a year. By all accounts, these drugs, known as tyrosine kinase inhibitors, have been a rousing success in turning a death sentence into a chronic disease whose victims often live close to normal life spans. That does not mean the high prices are justifiable; the companies could settle for lower-but-still-substantial profits. An even stronger case can be made that extremely high prices of other cancer drugs providing minuscule benefits should be lowered.
The cancer experts plan to organize meetings with drug companies, patient groups, insurers and others to discuss why cancer drug prices are so high and what might be done to lower them. Let us hope their effort proves as effective as the Sloan-Kettering revolt, which forced the drugmaker to effectively cut its prices in half.