By Heather Millar
I’ve been outraged about cancer drug prices since I became a cancer patient. On my own blog, I tried to figure out why one of my chemo drugs, Carboplatin, cost so much: about $10,000 for each infusion. It’s an old drug, even if it was made entirely of platinum—the “platin” in “carboplatin”—it shouldn’t have cost that much. After weeks of research (I had just finished chemo, so things took longer then), I could only come up with one answer: drug companies charged more for carboplatin because they could.
New York magazine recently published an excellent cover story called “The Cost of Living.” It’s a long piece, but I encourage all cancer patients to read it. It’s one of the clearest explanations about crazy cancer drug prices that I have read to date.
This is a fraught topic, of course. If you’re trying to stay alive to see a child get married, or a grandchild graduate, or to celebrate your 30th anniversary, then your feeling is: Of course the drug is worth any price. Every day is worth it. Patients facing this crossroads will do just about anything to get the drug they think they need, and that’s understandable.
If you believe in free enterprise, which I do by the way, then you cite the fact that it often takes decades and tens of millions, sometimes hundreds of millions, of dollars to bring a new drug to market.
Drug companies should benefit from their work, of course they should. The question I’ve been asking, the question posed by the New York magazine piece, is: How much should they profit?
Different societies come up with different answers. A study just published in The Lancet Oncology, for instance shows vast differences in cancer costs across the European Union: Treating a cancer patient in affluent Luxembourg costs more than ten times what it does in struggling Bulgaria.
Yet here’s the really staggering fact: Most cancer drugs in Europe cost a fraction of what they do here in the United States. For instance, the lung cancer drug, Gleevec, costs about $33,000 a year in the United Kingdom. Here in the United States, it costs up to $92,000.
If you think this doesn’t matter to you as a cancer patient, think again: People with chronic, life-threatening illnesses like cancer are 2.5 times more likely to go bankrupt, according to a study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Sure, we patients may be living a bit longer, but how are we to pay for drugs that sometimes cost $300,000, even $500,000 for a course of treatment? What do patients do if they believe they need a drug and their insurance company, or their national health service, balks because of the price?
A woman in Wales, where drug prices are much lower, is waging a campaign to secure a life-prolonging drug that Britain’s National Health Service has denied her, partly because of price. This happens all the time here in America. Faced with astronomical treatment costs, many cancer patients, according to the American Cancer Society, just stop treatment early, or decide not to get it at all.
This is an intolerable situation. How did we let things get this out of whack? Read the New York magazine story. Then we should all hit the streets to protest.
Have you had trouble paying for an expensive cancer drug? Let us know about it here.