By Richard C. Frank, MD
I rarely give my patients prescriptions for cancer
There is no doubt that advances in cancer research are leading to better ways to treat cancer and improved survivals in many cases. A recent report from the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) highlights these many scientific advances and the new drugs resulting from them. But research is expensive. The National Institutes of Health has an annual budget of $30 billion, of which $5 billion is allotted to the National Cancer Institute to fund cancer research. But this money all goes to fund not-for-profit research centers, mainly those that are laboratory based. The pharmaceutical and biotech industries are largely responsible for funding the clinical trials that test new drugs in cancer patients and this costs many billions of dollars as well.
As a result, the new cancer drugs are extremely expensive. Some examples include the new breast cancer drug Perjeta, which costs $188,000 for a six-month course, and the melanoma drug Yervoy, weighing in at $120,000 for four doses. As pointed out in the September 3rd issue of Newsweek, in an article entitled, “How Much Would You Pay For Three More Months of Life?” we could accept these exorbitant prices if the drugs were cures. Disappointingly, they extend life anywhere from two to six months on average. Yet, some individuals may have extraordinary responses and the first FDA approval of a new drug supports testing for other types and stages of cancer where they may be even more potent.
I do not have a solution to the high costs of new cancer medicines but I do know that patients want to receive them, as they represent the best hope, and oncologists want their patients to get them. Here are some of the strategies we use to help patients access costly cancer drugs:
1. Have your cancer providers submit prescriptions for oral cancer drugs to specialty pharmacies that work with your insurance coverage to get the best price. Some of the organizations to work with are:
- Advanced Care Scripts (877-985-6337)
- Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy
- The chain drugstores such as Walgreens and CVS also have specialty pharmacies.
2. Contact the Chronic Disease Fund (877-968-7233, email: firstname.lastname@example.org) and the Partnership for Prescription Assistance (888-477-2669) for financial assistance to pay for medicines.
3. Have your cancer providers contact the company that makes the cancer drug you need to see if you qualify for free drugs based on financial statements that you are required to submit.
4. Contact patient advocacy groups such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, American Cancer Society, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and other disease-specific patient advocacy groups to see if they can help.