By Heather Millar
I’m not the kind of person who feels the need to balance my checkbook to the penny. I don’t pore over every credit card statement, looking for mistakes. While I’ve long found math concepts interesting, the detailed slog of actually doing math is not normally my passion. But the numbers on my medical bills fascinated me.
Mostly, I couldn’t believe the prices of the drugs I took to fight breast cancer: Herceptin, a monoclonal antibody, cost my insurance company about $10,000 a dose. Carboplatin, a traditional chemo drug, cost about the same. The anti-nausea drug Emend cost $800 for the three pills I took before and after each chemo infusion.
I’ve ranted about this to anyone who will listen ever since I became a cancer patient. I get that drug companies spend zillions developing drugs. Sure, they should benefit. That’s why U.S. law provides for patents that give drug makers a monopoly on their inventions for 17 years.
But what about Carboplatin? That drug’s patent expired years ago. Why does it still cost so much? My question: If these prices make no sense, then why do we, as patients, put up with them? Why doesn’t anyone speak up? Why aren’t there drug price protests?
Recently, at least one major cancer center—Memorial Sloan-Kettering in Manhattan where I got a second opinion in early days—has taken a stand against sky-high drug prices.
A month ago, doctors at MSKCC decided that they would not use a new drug, Zaltrap, for their patients with advanced colorectal cancer. In an editorial they explained that the drug cost an average of $11,063 for one month of treatment. That is twice as much as an older drug. Does Zaltrap offer any extra benefit? The doctors said it did not, and so, they opted not to use it.
My favorite line: “In most industries something that offers no advantage over its competitors and yet sells for twice the price would never even get on the market.”
Part of the problem, the doctors wrote, is that the Food and Drug Administration approves drugs that are “safe and effective,” but doesn’t take into account relative costs once those drugs hit the market. As a result, the median price of chemo drugs has hovered around $10,000 since 2010. Two new drugs cost as much as $35,000 a month.
Amazingly, the drug’s developer, Sanofi, last week halved the price of Zaltrap. The drug company’s CEO cited “market resistance” to the “perceived relative price” of Zaltrap in the U.S. He also claimed the MSKCC used a double dose in their comparison.
To me, these justifications sound pretty thin. If Sanofi can afford to give 50 percent discounts on a brand-new product, how can they deny that the higher charge was price-gouging?
Mostly, I think we cancer patients react to these ludicrous drug prices with a whimper. We’re scared. We’re sick. We’re tired. If we have insurance, it doesn’t affect us directly, or at least not immediately. If we don’t have insurance, God only knows how we cope.
The doctors have given us an example of what can be done if we just say, “No” to sky-high drug prices. I wonder how we patients can build upon that. What do you think? How much do your drugs cost?